Thief of bad bags

The Brooklyn Paper
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In one of the most lopsided votes since the re-election of Chairman Mao in 1954, members of Brooklyn’s famously progressive supermarket, the Park Slope Food Co-op, voted nearly unanimously on Tuesday night to stop making plastic shopping bags available at the checkout counter.

In doing so, the 14,000-member grocery store is now in good company with bag-banning locales like Rwanda, Uganda, Bangladesh, China, San Francisco and the Republic of Whole Foods.

It was the second environmental triumph for the Co-op in as many months; in April, the Union Street supermarket voted to stop selling bottled water.

In both cases, the well-being of the planet was cited as the motivation — like water bottles, plastic bags are made from petroleum — and the notion of customer convenience was dismissed.

(Full disclosure: I’m not only The Brooklyn Paper’s Park Slope Food Co-op beat reporter; I’m also a member.)

“I will be so happy to see the plastic bags gone, gone, gone!” said Jane Bayer, a 34-year member of the Co-op, using her allotted three minutes at the Tuesday night meeting to thunder against America’s “addiction” to the thin-plastic bags.

“We don’t need them. Some people say they reuse them, but how many times? Once, twice? That’s no big savings. It will be hard to give up plastic bags, but we can do it. We don’t need them! We can do it! It should be done. It must be done.”

It was a night of passion, persuasion and props.

One woman showed off her collection of European reusable bags (“They’re cotton!”). Another held up a multi-use freezer bag that keeps ice cream rock sold for hours (“Sometimes you want it to melt, but it won’t melt!”). And one man displayed his own durable plastic tote that he claimed to have used hundreds of times (“I love it so much that I put a little duct tape on it — and we sell it at the Co-op for just 54 cents!”).

But such theatrics weren’t necessary to convince this crowd to vote for the ban — it passed by a show of hands.

About 250 hands went up in support.

Four went up in opposition.

You didn’t need a computer (not that you’d find one at the Co-op!) to see that the ayes had it.

Is this any way to run a democracy?

Who said the Co-op is a democracy?

“I’m impressed by all the environmental self-congratulation going on right now, but I don’t think this is how we should be doing this,” complained Donald Horwitz, before registering as one of the four “no” votes. “We’re a supermarket with 14,000 members, yet this very important issue is decided by just the few hundred people in this room? I don’t like it.”

Horwitz would have a point, given the flaws of the Co-op’s monthly “General Meeting,” a Town Hall-style form of direct democracy. Considering that Co-op members get work credit by attending, it’s unclear whether all the attendees are motivated by passion over the issue of supermarket governance or whether they simply wanted a break from their monthly two-and-three-quarter hour shift (did I mention that there are also Newman’s Own snacks and organic bananas by the box load?).

Co-op member Barbara Kancelbaum — who was profiled in these pages two years ago when she led the neighborhood-wide effort to eliminate bottles — presented plastic bags’ sins: they cause pollution during their manufacture, they consume 12 million barrels of oil per year, they take 1,000 years to degrade, and it costs more to recycle them than to just make a new bag.

She also didn’t think it was fair that so many Co-op members — nearly 70 percent the last time the exit and entry advisory group (yes, there’s an exit and entry advisory group) counted — were taking such great pains to “do right by the environment,” yet nearly 30 percent of shoppers did not share that basic cooperative ideal.

There’s a particular irony to the Co-op’s ban on plastic bags. The store has always been very slow to accept modern conveniences. Cash registers, scales that can calculate prices, bar-code scanners, beer, debit cards — all of these showed up at the Co-op years (or in the case of red meat, millennia) after they arrived in other marketplaces.

In the 1980s, the only debate over plastic shopping bags was how quickly we could get them now that every other store had them.

And now, they’re gone.

Despite the supermarket’s famous reputation for endless debate — don’t get me started about chicken! That battle is still being fought — there was virtually no discussion of the unseen consequences of the plastic bag ban — such as the sudden need to start buying plastic garbage bags for kitchen or diaper pails rather than merely recycling shopping bags.

So the ban passed easily — and starting in two weeks, when the existing supply of plastic bags runs out, Co-op shoppers will have to bring their own bags or use one of the many cardboard boxes that are stored on a side wall. Paper bags are no substitute, apparently.

Minutes after the vote at Temple Beth Elohim on Eighth Avenue, I ran over to the Co-op to break the news and conduct my own fact-finding tour. It wasn’t easy; the plastic bag ban had been so widely discussed by the membership that almost no one was using them anymore.

I waited for 20 minutes and watched groceries being carried out in boxes, net bags, canvas bags, backpacks, messenger bags, panniers, old shopping carts, and in people’s bare hands — anything to avoid taking one of the evil plastic T-shirts.

Even the people who did use plastic bags shrugged off the ban.

“I do reuse these bags as my garbage bags,” said Suzanne, a 22-year member, who toted her food away in two of the forbidden bags. “So it’s ironic, because now I’ll have to buy garbage can liners instead of just reusing these. But we’re a Co-op and we need to take a stand.”

More “stands” are coming. Kancelbaum said that the next item on her green crusade is a fee for the plastic roll bags in the produce aisle.

This time, I’m with Horwitz; that topic is just too controversial for a General Meeting (unless there are snacks)

Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at
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Reader Feedback

Sara Hatfield from PLG says:

great article, Gersh! (p.s. we miss you at the Fitness Collective)
trainer/coop member,
Sara Hatfield
June 2, 2008, 10:55 am

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