BELLINGHAM - It may have taken a few extra trips back to the car to grab the reusable bags, but overall it appears Bellingham residents are getting used to the city's plastic bag ban.
It's been a little over a month since the ban went into effect. While businesses and residents are still adjusting, it's clear many more people are walking into stores with reusable bags.
As part of the citywide ban effective Aug. 1, retailers stopped offering single-use plastic bags at checkout, with many offering paper bags at 5 cents a piece as a way to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags.
"Overall I'm very pleased with the response," said Brooks Anderson of Bag It Bellingham, the group that brought the idea to the Bellingham City Council last year. "In the first year of an ordinance like this you want to make it more of an informative process rather than one that penalizes. So far we're hearing about a lot of people bringing in their own bags."
While the big retailers have seen plastic bag bans take effect in other parts of the country and were able to quickly adjust, this was completely new to many of Bellingham's small-business owners. For Kathy McCrady, who owns the children's clothing consignment store Wee Ones Reruns on James Street, the past month has meant plenty of conversations with customers about the bag ban.
"We had a few people upset about the ban at first, but I would say that overall people are happy about it," McCrady said.
The bag ban resulted in a big change for McCrady's business: Before the ban, she was giving away about 1,000 plastic bags a month; in the first month of the ban, the store has handed out only 100 paper bags that come with the extra 5-cent charge. Everyone else either brought in reusable bags or chose to not use a bag.
"I was really surprised to see (non-reusable bag use) drop by that much in the first month," said McCrady, noting this change took place during the store's busy back-to-school shopping season.
Other local retailers made more significant changes. At Hardware Sales, the store started re-using cardboard boxes as an option to pack customer purchases, much like Costco's model. The store also introduced a transparent, mesh-like reusable bag for customers to help address potential shoplifting issues. Customers are welcome to bring in non-mesh reusable bags, but in the first month of the bag ban the store has had to adjust how it handles security. Some customers prefer to use the reusable bags to hold products before bringing them to the cash register, which can lead to some confusion about what's been paid for.
"The cardboard box system is a great concept and has worked well for us," said Ty McClellan, vice president of Hardware Sales.
As for the awkwardness of customers using reusable bags to hold products before going to pay at the register, McClellan said it's something they're still working on.
"The most important thing for us is to make sure the customer is happy," McClellan said.
The ban was approved by the Bellingham City Council in July 2011 as a way to reduce single-use plastic bag usage. Based on Whatcom's population and shopping habits, Bag It Bellingham estimated that city shoppers were going through 22 million single-use plastic bags a year before the ban.
"(The ban) makes sense from an environment standpoint. It also makes economic sense for retailers. I realize it's tough on the plastic industry, but I think it shows a more sustainable product needs to be developed," Anderson said. "I think this ban is a good foundation for other communities to follow."
With the law's implementation in Bellingham as well as other communities, including Seattle, Anderson said more discussion is taking place lately about putting in a similar ban at the state level.
"I hope it will go statewide," Anderson said. "There's certainly been a groundswell of support building."
For further details about the Bellingham single-use plastic bag ban, including an extensive informational section for retailers, go to this cob.org webpage.
Reach DAVE GALLAGHER at email@example.com or call 715-2269. Visit his business blog online at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/business or get updates on Twitter at twitter.com/BhamHeraldBiz.