Giant Eagle's plastic blue bags are a common sight in Pittsburgh, often curbside on recycling day, used to pick up dog poop or sometimes cast aside on the street. Not for long — Giant Eagle told WESA that the company is stepping away from these bags and other plastics, in a large move to be announced Tuesday afternoon.
"We are making a commitment that by 2025, we will be out of single-use plastics across our operations," Dan Donovan, senior director of communications at Giant Eagle. "It's an ambitious goal, but one that we're really excited to go tackle."
On Jan. 15, a pilot will begin at the Market District and GetGo locations in Aspinwall, as well as stores in two Ohio locations: blue bags will be removed from the cashier stations, with paper bags available for 10 cents each. The fee will be waived for those on food assistance programs. Reusable bags will be strongly encouraged.
The company is also planning to eliminate single-use, or disposable, plastics from all of its product lines, from loaves of bread to packs of hot dogs. Other brands will hopefully follow suit, said Donovan.
"Some of our national brand partners ... are making great strides," Donovan said. "But I can't speak today to some of their goals and where they'll be in a few years."
Giant Eagle isn't the only grocery chain working to eliminate single use plastics. Aldi, which doesn't offer single-use plastic grocery bags, plans to make all food packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable in the next five years. Wegmans, which operates along much of the eastern seaboard, has been experimenting with not offering plastic bags ahead of a New York state ban that goes into effect in March.
Andy Benchek of Mt. Washington said he welcomes efforts to reduce single-use plastics. He and his family try to live as sustainably as possible: they're vegan, they compost and even make their own toothpaste.
"We try to reuse everything," Benchek said. "But then, there are the plastic bags."
He said he and his wife try to bring their reusable bags every time they shop, but sometimes they forget, and sometimes they end up with unwanted bags.
Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the founder of environmental group Beyond Plastics, said these Giant Eagle changes can't come soon enough, because we're essentially turning our oceans into landfills.
"It's so bad, that conservative estimates are that nine million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year," Enck said.
Enck said the U.S. has never recycled more than 10 percent of the plastic that ends up in recycling bins. China, which historically took much of the U.S.'s plastic for recycling, doesn't want it anymore.
"So the best things we can do as consumers, if we care about public health and the environment, is buy less plastic whenever you have that option," Enck said.
Justin Stockdale, managing director of the Pennsylvania Research Council, said he’s skeptical of Giant Eagle’s plan to eliminate single-use plastics. He said he applauds the change, but thinks customer response will be negative.
“I can imagine the public perception of this is going to be very resistant out of the gate,” Stockdale said. “[PRC] fears that in a pilot phase, you’ll have that resistance overwhelm the intention and at the end of the day, the pilot will prove removing bags is not an option.”
Donovan said there’s no question that Giant Eagle will remove all single-use plastic from its stores eventually: if the process is slower than expected, the company may miss the 2025 goal. In the Pittsburgh region, the whole process away from single-use plastics will be done in partnership with Sustainable Pittsburgh, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
“We’re going to share data where we can monitor it,” Donovan said. “We think in the coming weeks and months, we’re going to find some really interesting facts [about plastic use].”
Giant Eagle has plastic bag recycling bins outside a majority of its stores, said Donovan. What goes into those bins, combined with other recycling efforts, amounts to three million pounds of plastic recycled every year across Giant Eagle stores.
"We are really thankful that customers work with us to make that possible," Donovan said. "But ... there are three million pounds of single-use plastic leaving our stores."
Donovan said he thinks customers will be open to this change: he said a lot of people already bring their own reusable bags. Giant Eagle also plans to make big moves related to carbon emissions and waste across the chain. Details on those will come in the next few months and years.