Where plastic bags belong.

Introduction

In order to create a convenient, efficient and effective program, the City of Phoenix partnered with the private sector to recycle plastic bags instead of banning plastic bags or requiring mandatory recycling. The City of Phoenix worked with the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance (AFMA) and retailers to develop consistent branding around plastic bag recycling. This included a logo and a slogan used to raise awareness around this issue and encourage proper disposal of plastic bags. The plan the partners outlined has six main elements: Recycling Containers with the logo and slogan, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle messaging on bags, Education and Marketing Partnerships, Reusable carry out bags, Effectiveness Measurements, and Community Input. They have also created a website (www.bagcentralstation.com) that allows people to become more informed, find out what can go in the plastic bag recycling containers and where to go to find a container. Over all they have been very successful with a 12% drop in plastic bag use at the store, 1300 tons of plastic bags captured annually by six grocery store chains, and a 20% decline in plastic bags coming through the Material Recycling Facility (MRF).

Background

Phoenix consumes 300 million plastic bags a year and the residential curbside recycling collection program does not accept plastic bags. Since the City of Phoenix owns its own MRF, it made sense for them to support and encourage this program because plastic bags in the curbside blue bins were causing contamination of the other recyclables and equipment downtime at the MRF.

The city of Phoenix partnered with AFMA, a grocery industry association, in order to more effectively work with the different grocery stores. Ultimately, grocers prefer to implement these types of programs themselves as opposed to being mandated.

The program was initially started in Phoenix, but is intended to be a statewide program. Other Arizona cities besides Phoenix have adopted resolutions for voluntary bag and film recycling, including Flagstaff, Kingman, and Tempe. Although cities choose whether or not to officially use this approach, many end up with the collection points at their chain stores, since chains typically implement a program in all their stores at the same time.

Recycling Program

This program is meant to provide encouragement and resources rather than carry out the implementation and ongoing operations of plastic bag collection and recycling at the stores. Each store provides their own container and signage and then the Bag Central Station logo, usually in the form of a “cling,” can accompany their program logo or stand alone as the logo for the container. The logo provides an identifying mark for the program, which creates consistency and recognition by the public, but the stores get to pick a suitable container that fits with their store image.

There are 150 businesses of all types signed up for the program consisting mostly of grocery and retail stores. They all accept bags from the public, and the larger businesses also collect their film from backend operations.

Here are the elements as described on the Bag Central Station website:

  • Recycling containers – Most retail establishments have placed recycling containers for recycling plastic bags in a prominent location within their store. This was done without mandates or ordinances.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle message on bags – The partners agreed that a message on each bag was important and that more than the current standard “This bag is recyclable” was needed.
  • Education and marketing partnership – The City of Phoenix committed to education and advertising on plastic bag recycling programs using the City’s available methods of outreach which include:
  • Inserting notes/advertisements in the municipal utility bills, such as the CityPage, a water bill insert.
  • Promotion on Channel 11 Cable TV, the public service channel
  • Promoting the Bag Central Station program along with the slogan campaign of “Recycling Changes Everything” at associated school and neighborhood events
  • Distributing reusable carry out bags – The City of Phoenix has purchased and personalized reusable bags and they are working with various retailers for distribution at specific events. The retailers have also committed to providing reusable bags at their store sites.
  • Effectiveness measurements – The city of Phoenix has committed to measuring the program’s effectiveness by monitoring the volume of plastic bags and film at the City’s transfer stations and material recovery facilities (MRFs). The retail community has committed to monitoring the volume in the recycling containers in select retail establishments.
  • Community input – The Public Works Department uses its quarterly Customer Service Survey process to incorporate plastic bag recycling questions to gather community input into the process and determine education effectiveness. Retailers have committed to monitor complaints and/or praise concerning the plastic bag recycling programs.

Tasks and Responsibilities

City of Phoenix

The City of Phoenix spearheaded the program initially to create a partnership with AFMA and the stores and now they advertise, encourage and monitor the program. They maintain the Bag Central Station website and provide the logo to the stores and a Bag Central Station cling for the container each store chooses. Initially, the city purchased reusable bags and made them available to retailers to use for publicity and outreach to jumpstart the program. This was a one-time purchase by the City, particularly since almost all stores provided their own reusable bags after the initial give away.

Stores

The stores are responsible for their own containers and signage, as well as coordinating pickup or delivery of the plastic film/bag material after it is collected.

Arizona Food Marketing Alliance

AFMA promotes the program on their website and has a kit available for all members, including all the major grocer chains. The kit includes all the logos in all formats and colors and various videos (training for courtesy clerks, a message from the AFMA president supporting the program, and video of when the program was rolled out – America Recycles Day on 11/15/07). AFMA also supports the program by helping provide resources to smaller independent stores that often need to partner with a grocery or other large store that is better equipped to handle the material after it is collected. For instance, one mall in Phoenix has a Sprouts Market and a Walmart, so the material collected by the mall is given to either Sprouts or Walmart to be handled with material collected from their stores.

Most of the large stores backhaul the material, meaning when a truck delivers goods for the store, the collected film material is loaded into the empty delivery truck and taken back to a central distribution place where it is baled and marketed. If the larger stores do not backhaul they would have an arrangement with a recycler. For instance, Walmart sells its collected material directly to a recycler that takes both their film/bags and cardboard.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

The most intensive and challenging part to initially starting this program was finding agreement among competing grocery stores on how to proceed. AFMA was instrumental in creating the partnership between the city and the stores and reaching agreement on the program details. Given the resources to do it, the City of Phoenix would have brought other industry associations like AFMA into the process from the beginning.

Another challenge was promoting plastic bag recycling messages with limited monetary and staffing resources. This is one area where the grocery stores made success possible because of their ability to promote the program to their customers.

Looking back, the purchase, distribution and storage of the reusable bags became quite an expense and because the stores promptly provided their own bags, the City of Phoenix may not have needed to provide reusable bags or could have provided less.

Finally, the City did not come up with standard language to be used on the bags used by participating stores. Development of one standard message that could be used universally at any store and in any city, that communicated a consistent message, would have been a better approach.

Successes

Effectiveness measurements and surveys are key elements in the Bag Central Station program and it has allowed them to acknowledge the success of the program. The primary goal for the City of Phoenix was to reduce the number of bags coming through the MRF. The MRF estimated that they lose $1 million a year due to downtime caused by contaminants, primarily plastic bags, according to samples taken of reject material. The MRF started with a base line number for equipment downtime and then assessed the results 3 months after the Bag Central Station program was implemented. They found a 20% decline in plastic bags coming into the MRF. After 6 months they still maintained the 20% reduction in plastic bags. Although they hope for further reductions as the program goes on, they were very encouraged by the consistency over the first 6-month period.

Another way of measuring success was the quarterly Customer Service Survey. The survey showed a 12% drop in the use of plastic bags, which resulted in an 11% increase in reusable bags and a 1% increase in paper bags. It is important to note that information was not provided in the outreach materials that promoted nor discouraged using paper bags as an alternative.

Overall, the City if Phoenix has received very positive feedback from the grocery stores. Six grocery store chains, all AFMA members, report plastic bag collection of 1300 tons annually. They report a reduction in the expense of purchasing bags by encouraging reusable bags and they have found an additional revenue stream by selling the bag/film material collected.

The program continues to expand to more stores. Target is interested in becoming a partner and they have also approached the fast food industry to promote putting the bag recycling messaging on plastic bags from those stores.