Ikea Puts a Price on Throwaway Plastic

Paul Bell, center, and Lewis Burrows, both of Bowie, realize that Ikea's reusable blue shopping bags are being promoted by a person and not a mannequin.
Paul Bell, center, and Lewis Burrows, both of Bowie, realize that Ikea's reusable blue shopping bags are being promoted by a person and not a mannequin. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

A nickel for a plastic shopping bag?

That's nothing, said Tomma Clocker of North Potomac, who was born in Germany, where bags now cost about $1.

"In Europe, you always bring your bags," said Clocker as she shopped at Ikea in College Park yesterday. "Americans don't because they are not as environmentally aware, because of the size of this country. In Europe, people live closer together and in smaller places. Much more consideration is given to how you impact your neighbor, on the inside of your home and on the outside."

Ikea, which was founded in Sweden, brought a bit of that European sensibility to American shopping yesterday when it began charging for plastic bags. The move represents a step beyond the discounts that some retailers offer those who bring their own bags. Whole Foods markets, for instance, knock off a nickel for each bag customers bring in for their groceries.

Customers paying for shopping bags? It's a seismic shift in the American way, akin to when service stations started charging for air or drinking water became something bought in a plastic bottle. This time, Ikea officials said, it's for a good cause.

"The goal is an environmental cause: to help reduce the waste of the plastic bags," said Sharon E. Black, public relations specialist at the store in College Park.

With the new policy, the chain joins a host of government agencies, environmental groups and corporations trying to make the world a greener place. The Maryland General Assembly is weighing bills to put cleaner cars on the road and more environmentally friendly soap in the dishwasher. Fairfax County is promising to buy more wind energy. Wal-Mart is selling a more efficient light bulb, and some major grocery chains recycle their bags.

Ikea officials said the home-furnishing chain gave away 70 million bags in the United States last year and hopes to cut the number in half this year by charging for them. The chain will donate proceeds from sales of the clear bags to American Forests, the nation's oldest citizens conservation group. Ikea expects to raise $7 million for the charity.

To make sure customers got the point, the College Park store deployed "live sculpture." One actor, all in blue, including a blue Afro wig, represented Ikea's reusable blue shopping bag -- made of durable plastic and now on sale for 59 cents instead of 99 cents. Another, all in white, portrayed the store's clear plastic shopping bag.

Customers who might have missed the store's postings about the bag charge paid attention to the actors and their message about waste. At one point, Marlies Moody of Potomac reached out to touch one, certain she was a mannequin.

When she felt flesh, she almost jumped out of her own skin.

"I'm sorry! I didn't think it was real!" Moody said. "I thought it was rubber! It didn't move! I can't believe it's real!"

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