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Here’s a not-so-fun fact: Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture.

Another one:  The average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes.

Check out the Center for Biological Diversity for more disturbing bag facts.

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Ideas We Should Steal Revisited: Reusable Bag Share

As the City enforces the plastic bag ban, Green Philly highlights a Collingswood program that could make going bag-free easier for consumers and businesses

Ideas We Should Steal Revisited: Reusable Bag Share

As the City enforces the plastic bag ban, Green Philly highlights a Collingswood program that could make going bag-free easier for consumers and businesses

We all know and love bike share programs, like Philly’s own Indego. But in South Jersey, the Collingswood Farmers’ Market put its own twist on that model: a reusable bag share program.

Under the Collingswood Bag Share, customers who don’t have a reusable shopping bag with them can stop by a table at the market and rent a bag. Volunteers at the table simply write down the name and contact information of the customer, along with the unique number assigned to that bag, and ask that it be returned whenever is convenient.

The program has been operating for several years, but it has new relevance since New Jersey and other communities — including Philly — have banned single-use plastic bags. Can this model, if replicated, help both businesses and consumers everywhere kiss flimsy carryout bags goodbye?

How the reusable bag-share program got started

The Collingswood Bag Share was the brainchild of Tricia Aspinwall, volunteer leader at Friends of the Farmers’ Market (FFM), which supports the operations of the Collingswood Farmers’ Market.

Aspinwall says that the idea occurred to her in 2016, when the town began considering a single-use plastic bag ban. And while she supported the ban wholeheartedly, she worried about the effect it could have on vendors at the market. What if customers were deterred from making a purchase because they didn’t have bags with them — and farmers couldn’t offer plastic ones?

“The consequence of that is the farmers aren’t selling as much produce,” Aspinwall says. “That affects their bottom line. And to me, it’s most important to keep farmers in business. So at the time, we wanted to think of different ideas to make sure that even if people couldn’t use a plastic bag, they had another alternative.”

“To me, it’s most important to keep farmers in business,” Aspinwall says. “So we wanted to think of different ideas to make sure that even if people couldn’t use a plastic bag, they had another alternative.”

Aspinwall’s concern for farmers comes from her background in farmland preservation. She worked as a land preservation specialist at Morris Land Conservancy before moving to Collingswood with her family in 2011. After arriving, she was eager to continue supporting agriculture in New Jersey, which brought her to FFM.

“The farmers market in Collingswood is just the coolest place ever,” Aspinwall says. “It’s a great place for people to go on Saturday mornings just to hang out, get good food, great produce, hear local music. It’s just a great meeting place for the community.”

When Aspinwall and other volunteers first floated the idea for the program, they called it a “lending library.” However, Aspinwall said that FFM landed instead on “Collingswood Bag Share” as a nod to the town’s bike-share service, which is popular among residents.

Commissioner and Green Team founder Joan Leonard and Assistant Market Director Kim Goodman

Aspinwell also says that, in early versions of the plan, FFM considered lending out bags donated by friends and neighbors. But Joan Leonard, commissioner of a local environmental volunteer group Collingswood Green Team, secured funding in order to purchase new bags specifically designed for the program — with branding and all. Now, in addition to lending them out, FFM sells the bags — and other merchandise — for $10 each, with all funds going toward the market. There are about 500 bags on hand for the program.

“They’re super sturdy, they last forever, they’re washable,” Aspinwall says. “They’re the best bags ever.”

While the service has run smoothly, it hasn’t been used as frequently as Aspinwall would like. “Not a lot of people know about the program. We struggle to get the word out,” she says. “Our usage has been steadily increasing every year, but it’s still not a lot. We sell more bags than we lend out.”

Plastic ban success relies on reusables

Like Philadelphia, Collingswood, New Jersey banned single-use plastic bags in 2019. Since then, New Jersey took the bold step of banning nearly all plastic carryout bags, plastic foam food containers and cups, and even paper bags at larger grocery stores. After a pandemic delay, Philly’s ban officially took effect in April, 2022, with the City announcing fees of $150 each time a business is caught giving out a plastic bag. Retailers in Philly are allowed to charge customers for paper bags, which are costlier.

As such, the bans’ success depends largely on consumers taking the initiative to bring their own bags to stores and markets. Aspinwall said that she’s already seen the tide turning in that direction.

“When I’m looking at customers at the farmers market this year in particular, almost everyone has their own reusable bag,” Aspinwall said in 2019. “Whether it’s something they bought from us, borrowed from us, or brought from home. They bring picnic-style baskets, they bring wagons. Not many people are walking around with single-use plastic bags anymore.”

“They’re super sturdy, they last forever, they’re washable,” Aspinwall says. “They’re the best bags ever.”

Still, many shoppers are still in the habit of using the free single-use grocery bags available at stores. And sometimes even the most anti-plastic consumers forget their tote bags at home. So the onus is on retailers to supply an alternative bag type — which will come at a cost. Many share Aspinwall’s concerns about the bottom line of farmers and other businesses with thinner profit margins, including Cass Duffey, now Borough of Collingswood Administrator.

“While I am as much a champion for green initiatives as anybody, there are practical implications,” Duffey says. “If you tell a business tomorrow that relies on bags heavily that they can’t use plastic bags, it’s going to have a serious impact on them and their customers.”

The Collingswood Bag Share service could be a viable option for businesses. Individual stores could choose to loan out subsidized bags to customers, rather than selling them — such a solution would make them more accessible to lower-income customers, while also avoiding the costs that come with giving out unlimited free bags.

“Frankly I’m for anything that helps reduce single-use and increase reusable bags,” Duffy says. “So I would be open to it if there was a business that was making a bag share program available. We would absolutely promote it.”

Aspinwall, meanwhile, simply hopes more patrons of the farmers market will make use of the program. But if it’s picked up by other businesses in Collingswood — or even other towns?

“I’m happy we can be part of that solution,” she says.

This post originally ran in 2019. It is still an idea we should steal. 



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