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Ikea Puts a Price on Throwaway Plastic

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!"

Ajax Joe Drayton, a founder of Joe's Movement Emporium, a performance group in Mount Rainier, said the actors were happy to take part as a way to encourage people to think about the waste they generate. The group provided its services as a thank-you for donated furniture.

"We live in the time of disposable everything: disposable razors, disposable bags, disposable dishes," Drayton said. "We use things and then we just throw them away and put them out of mind because it is faster that way."

No one seemed to mind paying for the plastic bags.

"We are very wasteful as a nation and that includes me," said Mildred Talbott of Baltimore, who was shopping with her daughter-in-law, Regina Ali of Laurel. "We don't have enough people speaking out like this and encouraging the rest of us to do the right thing."

Sharlene Cooper of Temple Hills purchased the reusable shopping bag. "I didn't mind paying for the bag since the money would be used for something good," she said.

Claudia Farrell of Capitol Heights chose not to buy a bag at all. "I decided just to bring my things out on the cart," she said. "It wasn't that much trouble, and it makes me feel good that the bag won't be around damaging the environment for many years."

Maria Loretta of Bethesda brought her own bag -- from Trader Joe's.

"I hate all of the waste in this country," said Loretta, a chef who was born in Colombia. "I think our children are not going to have a planet if we keep it up this way. This was a good idea because it makes people aware."

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