Yesterday, Kroger announced it’s getting out of the plastic bag game. By 2025, the company hopes to have eliminated all plastic bags from stores nationwide. This is a big deal. Kroger is the nation’s largest grocery store, operating under various regional names in 35 states. It’s also the purchaser of some 6 billion plastic bags each year.
Cheap, disposable plastic bags are perhaps one of the most reckless uses of resources. They litter oceans and streets, kill wildlife, and cost businesses money to stock. Since they’re derived from oil, recycling is not cost-effective when the price of oil is low; it’s cheaper to simply make new plastic bags. The many downsides of plastic bags coupled with the fact that we have viable alternatives has led to states and local jurisdictions banning the use of plastic bags.
Business Owners and the Georgia Senate Revolted Over the Last Proposal to Ban Plastic Bags
Recall that Tybee Island, Georgia debated the banning of plastic bags several years ago, but the proposal was met with resistance from business owners on the island and from the Georgia Senate. According to store owners, banning plastic bags would be expensive and it may lead some to shop elsewhere. The owner of the only grocery store on the island favored a recycling campaign over a ban (though, again, recycling plastic bags makes little economic sense when oil is cheap). His main competitor, though, is not on the island and wouldn’t be subject to the ban. Therefore it’s possible shoppers would choose his competitor if they really needed plastic bags. But the competitor is about 10 miles away. And the competitor is Kroger.
On the legislative side, the Georgia Senate passed a bill prohibiting cities from banning plastic bags since such reckless bans would hurt business or something. Ultimately the measure failed in the House, but the Senate’s foray into the debate perhaps chilled the banning aspirations of other local jurisdictions. Tybee ended up tabling the debate and it doesn’t appear anything has come of it since 2015.
The decision by the largest grocery store chain in the country to eliminate plastic bags, almost certainly a business decision since Kroger is a for-profit corporation, undercuts the arguments made by both store owners and the Georgia Senate. At least to some degree. Clearly a large company is in a better position than small local businesses to shoulder some of the initial costs of providing higher-priced paper bags for those without re-usable bags. But they’ve also set themselves up to sell more reusable bags and a attract a wider audience. Kroger obviously saw some money-making aspect to this scheme.
A local ban, though, could hurt businesses in a metro area. If only one jurisdiction, say Smyrna or Decatur, chose to enact a ban then it may very well have a negative impact on local businesses since customers can find similar items in several stores within a 5-mile radius. This is precisely why it makes more sense for states or large corporations, not local jurisdictions, to adopt plastic bag bans.
Opposition to a Ban on Tybee Never Made Much Sense
While Kroger is the country’s largest grocery store chain, it has many competitors. Some customers could choose to shop elsewhere to get their plastic bag fix. In some ways Kroger is in a more precarious and vulnerable position than many of the local business owners on Tybee. While Kroger has a massive presence across Georgia and few have easy access to other grocery stores offering similar prices, Tybee business owners have a huge geographical advantage over competitors.
There are few reasonable alternatives for tourists and residents. It’s unlikely a tourist would choose not to shop at a local souvenir or trinket shop simply because the shop doesn’t offer plastic bags. It would make little sense to drive the additional 10 or 20 miles to find another store offering similar goods and plastic bags. When in need of a few quick items, it’s unlikely many are going to choose a 10-mile drive to Kroger over a 1-minute drive to the local grocery store. Kroger offers a much wider selection and lower prices anyway, so geography is the local grocer’s only competitive advantage. This debate will now be irrelevant by 2025.
A ban on plastic bags always seemed like an easy sell for Tybee and its businesses. The island is not a random town where people just happen to find themselves. Everyone is there for a reason. The plastic bag ban is an attempt to protect the assets that make Tybee an attractive place to live and visit. It doesn’t seem difficult to persuade a customer wishing to buy a trinket with a sea turtle on it that they can’t have a plastic bag because the law is trying to protect that very sea turtle represented on their trinket. Are potential tourists really going to choose to visit Charleston instead of Tybee because of a plastic bag ban? No. People want to visit a place that residents seem to vehemently care about protecting and preserving. After all, if the residents don’t care about this place then why should I?
Cover Photo Credit: Gulbenk via Wikipedia Commons