Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Invented Bag Refunds

Everybody takes bag refunds at the grocery store for granted -- except customers at Trader Joe's who still don't get them. It's about time somebody recorded the history and origin of the green practice of grocery bag re-use.  In 1969, I was a member of the Berkeley Food Co-op, a small chain of grocery stores in the Berkeley CA region. The chain had recently expanded by buying a defunct small chain called Sam's.  That meant that this liberal organization now owned and operated co-op grocery stores in several conservative neighborhoods.  And as a result, several conservatives were elected to the board of directors.  Let me say up front, conservatives in a liberal organization can be a good influence. In particular, Ann was a clear thinker.  She noticed that grocery bags cost the store 3 cents, and the store just gave them away free to customers.  She suggested that members of the store could help the bottom line if they would re-use their bags. She wrote a long front-page article for the store's newsletter urging all members to bring their used bags or their cloth bags back to the store, for the good of the co-op.  I thought this was an odd mix of save-the-bottom line and socialist thinking.  I also thought about my own bottom line.  There were 3 of us living on about $300 a month and my family could use that 3 cents.
I wrote a letter to the co-op newsletter suggesting that customers who re-use bags should get a 3 cent rebate off their grocery bill.  Personal interest is good for the environment, and that is one of the co-op's goals, in addition to providing low-cost quality food.
The co-op did not implement my idea.  
But Safeway was always reading the co-op newsletter.  If the co-op put a product on sale,  so did Safeway. If the co-op got a store-label version of a product, so did Safeway.  Within a few months, Safeway was giving 3 cent refunds to customers who brought in their own grocery bags.  Safeway was selling cloth grocery bags. At one point, if a customer saved up $300 worth of grocery receipts, s/he could trade them for a cloth grocery bag.
Now most grocery stores will give customers a rebate for bringing their own bags. And the co-op  grocery stores of Berkeley are out of business.
Here's my next campaign -- bring your own plastic box to restaurants to package up your leftovers.  Those little boxes cost a dime.  Even if the restaurant doesn't give you the dime, you will be helping to save the environment.

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