The Kroger Co., which owns more than two dozen grocery chains including Kroger, Ralphs, Turkey Hill and City Market, plans to phase out single-use plastic bags at all of its stores by 2025. Seattle-based grocer QFC is the first to kick the plastic bag habit and will transition entirely to reusable bags by the end of 2019, the company announced last week.
Kroger said it will “work with NGOs and community partners to ensure a responsible transition” and cited customer feedback around sustainability as the primary impetus behind the switch. "We listen very closely to our customers and our communities, and we agree with their growing concerns," Mike Donnelly, Kroger's executive vice president and COO, said in a statement last week. "That's why, starting today at QFC, we will begin the transition to more sustainable options.”
An estimated 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of American consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Less than 5 percent of them are ultimately recycled, and bags are the fifth-most common single-use plastic found in the environment by magnitude.
When it makes the switch, Kroger will join Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in leaving plastic bags behind. In the United Kingdom, retail giants like Woolworths and Coles—which together dole out more than 6 billion bags a year—similarly pledged to ditch the practice in order to cut those figures down to size. But while a growing number of American eateries have begun phasing out plastic straws, mainstream US grocers were slow to jump on the bag-ban trend.
This move from Kroger could serve as a signal to the industry and have a substantial environmental impact in its own right: as America’s largest grocery chain, Kroger uses 100 billion bags each year across nearly 2,800 stores. “When our company’s phase out of single-use grocery bags is fully implemented, the waste generated by these bags at our family of stores will drop by 123 million pounds per year,” Rodney McMullen, Kroger's chairman and CEO, wrote in an op/ed last week. “To give a sense of just how big a number that is, that's equal to the weight of the entire population of Detroit.”
Environmental groups praised the move and said reducing plastic bag use could help the US cut down on litter and protect wildlife. If early data from California’s statewide bag ban is any indication, they may be right. A year after the state banned plastic bags at all retail stores, the Ocean Conservancy reported a 70 percent drop in plastic bag litter collected at its California coastal clean-ups compared to the previous year.
For his part, Kroger’s CEO appears aware of the company’s role in the growing plastic crisis and keen to make a change. “We recognize we have a responsibility to cut down on unnecessary plastic waste that contributes to litter, harms the environment, and, in some cases, can endanger wildlife,” McMullen wrote.
Though Kroger plans to implement the change incrementally—to give “customers plenty of time to adapt to a new way of shopping,” as McMullen put it—its public stand could indicate that change is brewing. “With Kroger saying that replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable ones is feasible and scalable, other grocery chains should take note,” Alex Truelove, zero-waste campaign director for the US Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement.
Kroger also pledged to divert 90 percent of its waste from landfills by 2020 and donate 3 billion meals to hungry Americans by 2025—and McMullen called on other grocers to do the same. “We’d love to join other companies in the food industry—whether food retailers, restaurants or supply chain partners,” he wrote in his op/ed. “They can start by joining us in taking the leap to say farewell to the plastic shopping bag.”
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