Calculating the Cost of Single Use Plastic Bags

September 13, 2019

I saw a woman in the grocery store the other day checking out of the Express lane. She was probably in her 60s, physically able, and quite able to tote her groceries all by her lonesome.

The clerk packed all 12 of her items (it was a 14 items or less express line) into a flimsy, single use plastic bag. She made it about 10 feet.


The plastic bag broke. I’m not sure if it was the handles or the belly of the bag itself. Regardless, her salsa, pickles, pasta sauce, and kalamata olives smashed one after another on the floor; her pasta package and frozen garlic bread was soiled with marina sauce and pickle juice; the bagged lettuce was full of glass shards.

What a mess! It was about as bad a grocery calamity as you could imagine. In seconds, the poor woman’s 12 items turned into a catastrophic grocery fail. She was visibly upset.

The culprit? A single use plastic grocery bag.

What happened next renewed a bit of my faith in humanity.

The store’s front-end manager descended immediately onto the situation, scurrying the woman away from the broken glass and mess, while also waving in a couple of associates to begin the arduous task of clean-up.

“Don’t worry about it,” he told the distraught woman. “I’ll have my team get you all new items at no cost to you and we’ll have you out of her in just a few minutes.”

The woman was grateful. The manager was smiling, clearly pleased to be able to offer his customer a successful resolution in such a highly visible situation (though his neck and ears were bright red, betraying a bit of his underlying emotions).

And me? I let the clerk ring up my 10 items in the express lane, and unlike the unfortunate woman ahead me I offered up a reusable shopping bag—a cooler bag, in fact, sturdy and easy to carry. Needless to say, my store exit transpired with a little less excitement. I was out the door in minutes.

On the way out to my car, I wondered about the lost cost to the woman and to the store:

  • Luckily, for the woman, the store made her whole by replacing the goods she lost in the unfortunate incident.
  • The store, however footed a more sizeable bill. Salsa, pickles, pasta sauce, kalamata olives, pasta, bagged lettuce, garlic bread, and several other items—it must have totaled some $50 or more (easily) and it was all due to too many items being packed into a single-use plastic bag by the clerk at checkout.

I wondered about the ramifications of the incident on the clerk:

  • Would she be reprimanded, have to undergo further training on how to pack a grocery bag?
  • Would she be fired?

Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to the latter—but as for remedial retraining, I could certainly see that in her future. That’s more cost to the store if you add, say an hour’s wage for her retraining plus whoever retrains her—so you’re looking at another $25 minimum . . . and all because a flimsy plastic bag didn’t do its job.

So with a little mental math, I calculated a cost to the store of $75 just because a single use plastic bag failed. And, of course, that didn’t take into account the short-term and long-term environmental impacts of single use plastic bag use—which is a whole other story. After all, as a society, what does that cost us?

 According to

  • Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade, which means they break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits. A plastic bag can take between 400 to 1,000 years to break down.
  • As plastic bags break down, the particles contaminate soil and waterways and enter the food web where animals, especially marine life, can accidentally ingest them. Plastic bags cause over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths every year.

The cost of the above is incalculable.

I don’t want to be one of those smug individuals who says my way is the best way. But given this example, I know that if the woman in this unfortunate incident had been using a re-suable bag she would have saved herself a world of trouble and the store some hard-earned dollars.

It makes me wonder, aside from all the pollution and environmental issues, what’s the cost to individuals and retailers of sticking with single use bags?

Fortunately, there is a solution.

Belvedere Exclusive

Consumers and retailers can do their part by using reusable shopping bags such as those produced by Belvedere Exclusive. 

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