No Economic Slowdown For Reusable Bags

Despite the slow U.S. economy, consumers are putting their cash into all things green. New York-based Eco-Bags makes reusable shopping bags. Sales doubled last year; they're set to do so again this year. One small company is profiting from America's growing distaste for the plastic bag.

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One product that can be made with oil is plastic shopping bags, which are becoming less and less popular. San Francisco has mostly banned them. Seattle wants to charge for them. Whole Foods no longer uses them in its stores, which has all been good news for a company based in Ossining, New York that makes reusable shopping bags. Amy Costello reports.

AMY COSTELLO: At first, Sharon Rowe's disdain for the plastic bag was merely aesthetic.

Ms. SHARON ROWE (Founder, Eco-Bags): I basically perceived plastic bags as a nuisance because they were cluttering my own personal environment, cluttering in my kitchen, getting stuck in the gutters, stuck in the trees, stuck in the rivers.

COSTELLO: That was 20 years ago. Around that time Rowe took a trip to Europe where she'd seen shoppers carrying fishnet bags. The sacks were ideal, she realized. Light to carry. You could scrunch one up and stash it away and when needed, whip it out again and carry up to 40 pounds worth of groceries. Rowe began to import these bags from Europe. She'd stroll the streets of Manhattan looking for retailers interested in stocking them. Then came Earth Day 1990.

Ms. ROWE: We set up a booth. We sold through about 3,000 bags, I believe, in five hours. So clearly there was a market demand.

COSTELLO: Which turned into a multi-million dollar business called Eco-Bags. Among Rowe's clients today: Whole Foods; Bed, Bath and Beyond; Estee Lauder. Her company had sales of $2.2 million in 2007, and she says she's on a, quote, "very healthy doubling course this year." She's got a production facility in Mumbai, India. And the market for reusable bags is growing. Rowe says businesses across the nation have finally caught on to what she started two decades ago.

Ms. ROWE: You know, ten years ago there was no competition. Eight years ago, there was no competition. Six years ago, again. Five, four, three, two - 18 months ago, all of a sudden, oh my gosh.

COSTELLO: So no doubt people are buying these bags, but are they actually using them? The Fairway Supermarket in Brooklyn seemed like just the spot to find out. It's a sprawling upscale store known for its organic meats and produce, a haven for the health and environmentally conscious.

But the parking lot tells a different story. Nearly every shopper who emerges pushes a couple hundred dollars worth of groceries in shopping carts filled with plastic bags. When asked, all of them confessed that they have reusable bags and swear they use them regularly.

Unidentified Woman: I do, but I didn't - I couldn't find mine today.

Unidentified Man #1: Sometimes I bring my own, but for a load this size I kind of need the plastic bags.

Unidentified Man #2: The problem is sometimes we leave them in the house and forget them and then...

COSTELLO: Then amidst these justifications for plastic in the grocery store parking lot she's spotted, the lone customer with her tidy shopping cart. Inside...

Ms. VENNI LOPRESTY(ph): My full grocery shopping for the week: fruits, vegetables, dairy products.

COSTELLO: And not a plastic bag to be found. Venni LoPresty(ph) says she never uses plastic bags and the reusable ones she's bought are cheap.

Ms. LOPRESTY: I think the most I've ever spent is $1.50 for each one. And that's nothing compared to what - the effect that it's having on the environment.

COSTELLO: Exactly what effect did cheap bags, like the ones in LoPresty's cart, have on the environment? Increasingly, retailers around the nation are offering 99-cent reusable bags at their checkout lines. Sharon Rowe, founder of Eco-Bags, says consumers should be skeptical.

Ms. ROWE: How long is that bag going to last? I mean, the last thing you want to do is purchase a bag that's really cheap and it falls apart and then it just immediately becomes part of the waste stream.

COSTELLO: Of course, Rowe has an interest in consumers spending more for their reusable bags. Rowe says she hopes that by the time her bags wear out that customers will be able to send them someplace where they can be recycled and then refashioned into something entirely new, given one more incarnation before hitting the landfill for good.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Costello.

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