Thursday, February 22, 2007

Europe fights back: No more free IKEA plastic bags for Americans

Swedish furniture store IKEA, that is gradually taking over the living rooms of the lower middle classes across the globe, has decided to strike at the heart of America by charging 5 cents for a plastic bag.

As the first US retailer to take such a step it is to be applauded. Environmental education takes time. However, (1) 5 cents is a rather small percentage of the cost of a wardrobe or fancy shelving unit and (2) plastic bags are rather practical for carrying all those nik-naks that one sees piled into those large yellow bags.

It will interesting to see if the figures change from the 70 million bags that are currently given away once the 5 cents charge comes in. IKEA's aim is to half that number and then to eliminate disposable plastic bags altogether. Although an economist might argue that 5 cents is not going to tip many consumers over the "marginal" edge, IKEA claim that bag charging has reduced UK consumption by 95%. Impressive. I suspect the charge in for UK citizens is greater than 3p (roughly equivalent to 5 cents at current exchange rates).

It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, to hear that the US is behind most of the rest of the world including Rwanda and Bangladesh on plastic bag legislation.

Ikea to Charge US Customers for Plastic Bags (PlantetArk).

PHILADELPHIA - Sweden's IKEA will charge US customers five cents for disposable plastic shopping bags in what the international furniture giant said on Wednesday was a first step to ending their use altogether.

IKEA said the decision to stop giving away free bags to customers aimed to reduce the estimated 100 billion bags thrown away by all US consumers each year.

IKEA is believed to be first retailer in the United States to undertake such a program, according to National Retail Federation spokesman Scott Krugman.

Concern about widespread pollution caused by the bags has led cities and countries from Ireland to Australia and Rwanda to ban their use. Bangladesh outlawed plastic bags after they blocked drains and contributed to flooding. Taiwan uses 80 percent fewer bags after stores began charging for them.

Environmentalists say the bags add unnecessarily to landfills, clog drains and endanger wildlife.

IKEA currently provides some 70 million free bags to its US customers; it expects to cut that by half in the first year and to eventually eliminate the use of the bags.

The company said it will also cut the price of reusable bags to 59 cents from 99 cents to encourage their use. The program will begin on March 15 at the company's 29 US stores and the money from bag sales will go to American Forests, a conservation group.

Last June, IKEA began charging its U.K. customers for plastic bags, and has reduced its bag consumption by 95 percent, said spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss.

The average American family of four throws away about 1,500 single-use polyethylene bags, which do not degrade for around 1,000 years, IKEA said. Less than 1 percent are recycled.

"We believe Americans are starting to be more conscious of the environment," Liss said. "Our objective is to get people to really think about the impact of the bags which are strangling the planet."

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