Target: Paper no more?

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 14, 2012 - 1:55 PM

The Minneapolis-based retailer is defaulting to plastic bags at a time many focus on sustainability.

Plastic. That's just not David Hlavac's bag.

The Edina resident regularly shops at SuperTarget, sometimes as much as three times a week. But much to his chagrin, employees have been automatically stuffing his purchases into plastic instead of paper bags.

"It's frustrating, actually," said Hlavac, 39, who regularly shops at the SuperTarget near his home in Edina. "They are doing the environment a serious disservice by defaulting to plastic bags. While plastic may be cheaper for Target, we insist on paper bags and would even pay a premium to continue using them."

Except for its downtown Minneapolis location, the retailer offers only plastic bags at its regular stores. The retailer usually provides both paper and plastic bags at its SuperTarget stores. But some consumers say they have noticed SuperTarget employees won't offer paper bags unless they specifically request them.

"I prefer paper, but Target obviously prefers its customers to get plastic," said April Hamlin, 37, of south Minneapolis, who shops regularly at the SuperTarget in Richfield. "They are either encouraging people to use plastic or not use paper. If Target is going to switch to plastic, I would rather that it just tell customers that so I can bring my recyclable bags."

Target spokeswoman Katie Boylan said the company has no set policy on bags.

"But generally store team members will use plastic first," Boylan wrote in an e-mail. She did not say why.

Bagging policies differ

Target's apparent penchant for plastic comes at a time when retailers are increasingly focusing on ways to reduce their environmental impact. The Retailers Industry Leaders Association (RILA), which last month elected Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel as its chairman, recently issued its first ever report on sustainability.

"The retail industry is evolving to meet the changing needs of consumers and communities," the RILA report said. "As one of the most notable evolutions of the past decade, consumers have become progressively more concerned about their environmental and social impact. This concern has manifested in an increased demand for environmentally friendly products."

Wal-Mart offers only plastic bags, though shoppers can purchase paper bags for 5 cents at its stores. In 2008, the retailer said it wanted to reduce plastic shopping bag waste by 33 percent, or 135 million pounds of plastic waste, by 2013, mostly through recycling, limiting bag supply, and encouraging the use of reusable bags.

CVS, which offers only plastic bags, recently rolled its Greenbagtag program, in which shoppers can earn cash rewards if they use reusable bags. Ikea banned plastic bags five years ago and now only offers reusable blue bags.

Since April 2010, Target has installed recycling centers at its stores, where consumers can drop off cans, bottles, small electronics, and, yes, plastic bags.

"We started the recycling program because it builds trust with our guests and team members who recycle at home and expect to be able to do it at their local Target," Boylan wrote.

The company said it reuses or recycles 70 percent of materials that retailers would've sent to a landfill, including corrugated cardboard, plastic shrink wrap, cellphones, and used inkjet printer cartridges.

Many customers say they prefer plastic bags because they can reuse them to store dog waste or line garbage cans. But other shoppers think Target's bias towards plastic bags, which are generally harder to recycle than its paper, does not mesh well with environmental sustainability. On the other hand, many trees are cut down to make paper products like bags.

On average, paper bags are twice as expensive for retailers as plastic bags, said Bill Bishop, chairman of Willard Bishop, a grocery consulting firm based in Barrington, Ill. Paper bags are heavier and take more room to store, he said.

"It's quite a bit more expensive," Bishop said.

It's unusual for a non-food retailer to offer paper bags. But Target, he notes, is quickly expanding into groceries. Aside from building SuperTargets, the company is aggressively rolling out its PFresh format, an expanded assortment of fresh produce, meat and baked goods, at its regular stores, which only offer plastic bags.

Since Target is using PFresh to drive more customers to its stores, it stands to reason those shoppers will be using even more plastic bags, Bishop said.

Some customers say they prefer paper bags when buying food because the bags are sturdier and can hold more items.

"It's much easier to carry groceries from the car to the house with paper bags -- plastic bags don't hold as many groceries and are far more prone to ripping and tearing en route to the kitchen," Hlavac said.

And SuperTarget seems to carry only a limited supply of paper bags, Hamlin said. Two weeks ago, the SuperTarget in Richfield told her they had run out of paper bags, she said.

"When you try to get in a full shopping trip, you have to carry triple the amount of the plastic bags versus paper," Hamlin said. "It's a nightmare."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113

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  • A Target checkout counter. The company now offers only plastic bags at most of its regular stores, and favors plastic over paper at its SuperTargets.

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