"You picked the wrong day to mess with the ecosystem, plastic boy."

Police utter this line as they haul a man away in handcuffs after he chooses plastic bags instead of paper in Audi’s controversial "green police" Super Bowl ad. Although satirically extreme, it underscores the common view that plastic bags are a bad choice for the environment and their status as a symbol of a throwaway society.

The reality, as highlighted in BSR’s recent report and other studies, is more complex. Plastic bags may cause visible litter and sea life impacts, but paper bags can have much larger global warming potential. There are even concerns about the effects of various types of reusable and biodegradable plastic bags. So, there is no clear winner in the “paper or plastic” debate. Ultimately, reducing the total volume of bags used (and discarded) every day is far more important than the choice of a specific bag type.

Retailers play a critical role in this system. They bear the brunt of implementing shopping bag regulations that governments are increasingly putting in place, and they have the opportunity to influence consumer choices at the point of sale. Some national retailers are concerned that an inconsistent patchwork of local shopping bag regulations may increase inefficiencies, costs, and impacts. (For example, San Francisco mandates the use of biodegradable plastic or paper bags in large grocery stores and pharmacies while Toronto forbids the use of biodegradable plastic because it can contaminate recycling systems.) And the momentum for regulation continues to grow, from Ireland’s national plastic bag tax in 2002 to proposed legislation this year in California that would ban plastic and paper bags.

Retailers are attempting to move beyond these regulations in some cases by implementing voluntary pilot programs to help consumers make greener choices. Such efforts can occur on a process level in individual stores, for example by offering convenient reusable bags at low cost or by redesigning checkout areas so that reusable bags can be filled more quickly. Retailers can also work on a systemic level, for example by informing consumers of the environmental consequences of bag choice or by working collaboratively with supply chain partners to address environmental issues associated with bags.

If you are a BSR retail or consumer products member interested in these issues, you can sign up for BSR’s member webinar on July 8, which will discuss BSR’s recent report reviewing environmental impacts and potential opportunities for solutions to shopping bag issues. We will encourage an open discussion about participants’ interests, concerns, and needs in this area, and registrants will receive a copy of BSR’s recent report reviewing environmental impacts and potential solutions for shopping bag issues.