Best Buy recently took a large step to phase out plastic shopping bags.
In July, Best Buy began to charge 10 cents per bag at all of its nearly 1,000 U.S. electronics stores. It joined a small group of major retailers to create a plastic bag deterrent throughout its chain.
Faced with the choice of paying an extra dime at the checkout and informed about the retailer’s waste reduction goals, most Best Buy customers said no to bags. Best Buy executives say the simple interaction of asking if shoppers need a bag often helps them rethink its use.
Plastic bag use in its stores dropped 70% in August and nearly 80% in September compared to last year.
Bags in general “are not core to the customer experience” at the chain, Tim Dunn, Best Buy’s head of environmental sustainability, said in an interview with the Star Tribune.
“We think of grocery stores where you are carrying out a lot of goods at the same time,” Dunn said. “Best Buy isn’t in that space. We just wanted to have this intentional conversation at the cash register to say, ‘Do you need one?'”
Plastic usage has been an area environmentalists have continued to focus on as the retail industry — whether through its packaging, customer bags and other components — contributes to a large amount of plastic that ends up in landfills and elsewhere.
Plastic bags were introduced at U.S. checkout counters in the 1970s. Now in the United States alone, about 100 billion plastic bags are used each year. The average plastic bag is only used for 12 minutes, but it can take up to 1,000 years for it to break down.
“Sometimes people just need a nudge or reminder of the environmental consequences of their consumer behavior,” said Natalie Huang, an assistant professor in the supply chain and operations department at the University of Minnesota.
The United States, which has nine states that ban plastic bags, is behind areas outside the country like the European Union that already ban plastic bags, Huang said. She said she commended retailers such as Best Buy that are taking steps to be more proactive to address the issue.
Prior to the pandemic, Best Buy officials had discussed how to address single-use plastic bags, Dunn said. In September 2021, Best Buy had its more than 160 Canadian stores change from plastic to paper bags and added a 30-cent fee per bag.
As a slowly growing number of states and cities have instituted plastic bag charges or bans, the different regulations can lead to confusion for shoppers, Dunn said.
“As we started to see more and more of the municipal or state bag regulations go into place, we wanted to act proactively. … There’s a lot of different versions of bag regulations out there and so what we are trying to do is be consistent across the operation and give our customers a similar experience from one store to the next,” he said.
Beginning in mid July, Best Buy customers have been asked at checkout if they need a plastic bag with their purchase. If they would like one, they are told about the 10-cent fee and the efforts to reduce plastic bag waste. A portion of the bag fees that are collected go toward supporting Best Buy Teen Tech Centers.
The electronics retailer said it will continue to work toward solutions to reduce plastic bag usage in stores, including offering paper bags. Plastic bag reduction is only one part of the company’s sustainability goals that it has been pushing for several years, including its focus on recycling. It has helped customers recycle more than 2 billion pounds of electronics since 2009.
Best Buy isn’t the only Twin Cities-based retailer that’s rethinking plastic bags. In September, two years after it agreed to be part of a consortium of retailers to experiment with plastic bag alternatives, Minneapolis-based Target and its partners released the first results of a summer pilot they tested at a small selection of stores.
The Beyond the Plastic Bag initiative included tests across nine CVS, Target and Walmart stores where customers had access to alternatives like reusable bag rental programs with rewards or ways to generate charitable donations when used.
Some of the feedback the programs collected was that for broad adoption, signup for reusable bag services needs to be just as fast and easy as getting single-use bags at checkout with not so many steps.
“We’re grateful for the insights these pilots have provided, and we’re applying what we learned to identify bag options that are best for our guests, propelling more circular systems throughout retail,” Amanda Nusz, Target’s senior vice president of corporate responsibility, said in a statement.
Discount grocer Aldi has removed plastic bags from nearly 500 stores, Aldi announced this spring it would phase out plastic bags from all 2,200 of its U.S. locations by the end of next year.
Retailers need to be more proactive to make a positive difference with the environment, said Theresa Carter, a Minneapolis resident who in 2019 launched a Change.com petition for Target to ban plastic bags.
“Small bag fees are certainly better than nothing. … At least it forces a question,” she said.
Plastic bag fees and bans aren’t without their own complexities in terms of implementation and the measurement of their effectiveness.
In 2016, the Minneapolis City Council voted to ban plastic bags. But the day before it was to go into effect, state lawmakers blocked Minnesota cities from banning any type of bag. Instead, Minneapolis officials decided to require shoppers to pay 5 cents for any single-use plastic, compostable, paper and reusable bag provided by stores.
Enforcement was delayed early on with the onset of the pandemic due to concerns the coronavirus could spread on reusable surfaces. Last October, the fees were reinstated.
A year later, it is difficult to determine if the bag fee has made an impact on the use of single-use bags in Minneapolis. The fees are collected by individual retailers, which aren’t required to report any data to the city.
The city hasn’t had to issue a formal letter of violation of the fee to a retailer since the rule came into effect, according to Minneapolis city staff.