Question: Who throws away an estimated 68 million plastic bags per year after using them for as little time as 12 minutes?
Answer: The residents of Napa County, according to Napa Valley CanDo, a grassroots group of volunteers who in October will launch their first campaign against tossable totes.
The goal is to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the Napa River, landfills, tangled in the city’s expensive recycling machinery or shipped off to China.
“We knew right from our inception, plastic bags were something we wanted to address,” said CanDo co-founder Grania Lindberg.
CanDo initially looked into campaigning for a citywide ban against plastic bags, but concluded that might be a difficult task. Instead, CanDo intends to educate the public about the harm caused by plastic bags so more people choose reusable bags voluntarily, Lindberg said.
“Even if we did (pursue a ban in the future), the first step is to educate the public,” Lindberg said. “We thought, ‘Let’s do that first.’ If we eventually move to the ban, we’ve laid the groundwork.”
In October, the group will pass out reusable bags, screen a documentary and reach out to Napans through bill inserts, a downtown art display and on foot.
“Whenever we’re in a place when it’s feasible, we put a flip chart up with ... the pledge that says, ‘I promise to take these bags to the store,’” Lindberg said. “Research shows that when you publicly commit to doing something, you’re more likely to follow through.”
Local grocers said their customers are open to the idea of using reusable bags — the hard part is getting people to remember to bring them into the store.
“Our biggest problem is that people want to use them, but they’re not quite used to them yet so they forget them,” said Bruce Anderson, Vallerga’s Market store supervisor.
CanDo suggests always leaving reusable bags within sight in your vehicle, particularly with a purse or wallet, or using bags that can be stuffed into pockets or purses.
On Sept. 6, the Napa City Council unanimously endorsed the group’s efforts, proclaiming October 2011 “Better Bag Month.” Mayor Jill Techel delivered the proclamation to the group in one of the reusable blue bags CanDo will be giving away.
Grocers said they have seen a growing number of their customers bringing their own reusable bags into stores.
“We have seen a tremendous increase in the number of customers using reusable bags,” said Chris Burns, vice president of Vallerga’s Market.
Anderson estimated 25 percent of the market’s customers use reusable bags.
Customers who bring their own bags to Trader Joe’s get the chance to win one of two $25 gift cards given away by the store in a raffle, said Allison DeBernardi, assistant manager.
“We definitely have seen an increase in people ... bringing in reusable bags, or bringing in paper bags they’ve saved from our store or another store to use again,” DeBernardi said.
Even with the increase in people using reusable bags in recent years, CanDo said plastic bags remain problematic. During a recent Napa River cleanup, the group retrieved about 250 plastic bags from a less than half-mile stretch along one bank of the river, Lindberg said.
According to the city’s proclamation on Better Bag Month, Napa Recycling and Waste Services retrieves 1,100 pounds of plastic bags daily.
Tim Dewey-Mattia, Napa Recycling and Waste Services public education manager, said those are just the bags improperly placed in blue recycle bins that staff are able to retrieve. The number does not account for those tossed into bins headed to the landfill or bags that blow out of bins and litter the city.
“We don’t want plastic bags in the blue recycling bins. They tangle our machinery,” he said. “Every day we shut down multiple times for maintenance and to clean bags out of the equipment.”
Employees sort through items in the recycle bins to remove plastic bags, which are shipped off to China to be manufactured into new products, Dewey-Mattia said. Napa Recycling and Waste Services encourages people who do use plastic bags to return them to one of the marked bins at stores so the bags can be recycled properly.
Because of the expense of recycling bags retrieved from blue bins and repairing equipment, Napa Recycling and Waste Services is offering its support to CanDo by placing an insert with information on bags in customers’ October garbage bills, Dewey-Mattia said.
The city of Napa is providing 3,000 reusable bags to CanDo’s Better Bag Month and Napa County is providing 1,500, said Chris Shoop, city recycling manager.
To bolster its message, CanDo has been showing the documentary “Bag It,” which follows a plastic bag through disposal and explores how bags impact the environment.
After Carol Poole saw the movie at a film festival in January, she and friend Marissa Carlisle purchased rights to show it and have since been playing it for local students and organizations.
Viewing the movie led Poole to join CanDo, which will screen the movie at the Napa Valley Opera House on Oct. 26 at 6:30 p.m. The money from tickets will be used to buy rights allowing the documentary to be played for more people, Poole said.
This story has been modified since first posting.