Despite state ban on plastic bag bans, Goodwill-Easter Seals drops plastic bags

By Frederick Melo
ST. Paul pioneer press

While many patrons associate Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota with its 50 second-hand stores throughout Minnesota and western Wisconsin, others know those shops fund its core mission — job training for low-income workers in everything from construction and medical billing to banking and retail.

Brent Babcock hopes more customers will see the century-old St. Paul-based social services organization in a third light, as well: a green one.
“Eliminating barriers to work and independence is our mission, but part of what we do is keep items out of landfills — millions of pounds per year,” said Babcock, Goodwill’s chief sales and marketing officer.

A growing focus on “green” operations means Goodwill has rolled out electric car charging stations and solar arrays at stores throughout the region, but its next green initiative may be its most far-reaching and controversial yet: dropping plastic bags from its purchased inventory. Plastic bags add to landfill waste and have proven tricky for many recycling companies, as they tend to get stuck in sorting and crushing machines and slow down the process of separating other recyclable materials for resale.

Goodwill customers can still ask for a box or bag at checkout, but they’ll probably get a cloth, canvas or plastic bag that was previously used to wrap donated goods.

Saving money

Goodwill is saving more than $100,000 annually by not buying new plastic bags, Babcock said. Then there is the money saved by no longer having to pay trash-hauling fees and taxes to get rid of the old ones.

“We get so many donated bags,” Babcock said. “Why wouldn’t we just reuse those? Not only were we buying over $100,000 in bags, but we were spending tens of thousands to dispose of them.”

The organization has set up a web page to explain its decision-making, noting that even new paper bags have  a complicated relationship with the environment because they use up raw materials and have a surprisingly large carbon footprint. They’ll also accept bags and boxes from customers who have a supply at home they want to get rid off.

In the end, the cost savings for Goodwill-Easter Seals means more revenue can be dedicated toward helping people.

“The way a nonprofit is oriented, and where those dollars go, it’s not intended to have additional money for administrative operations,” Babcock said. “It’s to provide funds for the social services that we operate.”

Going it alone

Babcock said companies of all stripes are studying how to move away from plastic bags and many have begun selling canvas bags as an alternative, but the culture change is more of a challenge for large retail stores such as Target and Walmart that serve thousands of customers a day. Some environmental advocates have hoped state and local governments would force the issue.

Minneapolis recently passed a mandate against private retailers using plastic bags at checkout, and St. Paul officials were in the early stages of pondering how a plastic bag ban might best be implemented.

But both efforts appear scuttled as a result of the 2017 legislative session, which denied cities the right to mandate plastic bag bans on the private sector. The restriction was included in the recent budget bill signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Now, Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota is going it alone.

Positive reactions

Patrons outside the Goodwill Outlet store off Fairview Avenue and Charles Street on Friday had mostly positive things to say about the change in approach, and several said they’re already accustomed to bringing their own canvas bags. Used bags for used goods fits with the culture of thrifting. “I don’t care at all — especially if I’m buying used clothes,” said Minneapolis resident Eleanor Rose, who received three paper grocery bags at checkout.

“I think the good that it’s causing outweighs any inconvenience,” said her friend Lauren Heers.

A test run this year at Goodwill’s outlet stores in St. Paul and St. Louis Park went better than expected, Babcock said, and has now rolled out statewide.

He noted the decision to reuse plastic bags at its 50 statewide locations fits with the Goodwill motto: “Donate-Shop-Reuse-Educate-Employ.”
“Just those 50 stores, we divert over 50 million pounds from landfills per year,” Babcock said. “It’s equivalent to 110 Statues of Liberty, or 2,000 school buses. That’s 34 million cubic feet.”

Goodwill receives so many plastic, cloth and canvas bags, in fact, the organization now shares some with the Hennepin County Medical Center food shelf, which uses them to distribute food items.

Goodwill-Easter Seals maintains electric car charging stations at 24 locations and solar arrays at 14 sites, including its St. Paul office headquarters at University and Fairview avenues. In addition, 60 percent of its buildings are “Energy Star”-certified for environmental efficiency.

– Forum News Service