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Editorial: Walmart tries to sidestep single-use plastic bans

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Walmart's new plastic bags (copy)

Walmart has switched to a reusable plastic bag at its two Mount Pleasant stores after the town began enforcing a ban April 16 on single-use plastic bags. The store initially began using paper bags last week. Warren L. Wise/Staff

When it comes to plastic bags, nobody is going to tell Walmart what to do — except maybe its customers.

To comply with Mount Pleasant’s ban on single-use plastics and those elsewhere, the multibillion-dollar Arkansas-based multinational retailer has beefed up its giveaway plastic bags to make them reusable and emblazoned them with feel-good messages. But let’s face it: plastic is plastic.

Though the new bags may be an incremental improvement in some ways and comply with the letter of the law, they certainly don’t comport with the spirit of it. And if there’s any single company that could afford to lead the way in reducing plastic waste, it’s Walmart — one of the world’s most profitable companies and its biggest private-sector employer.

According to some reports, Walmart has handed out about 20 billion single-use plastic bags per year. If the retail giant really wanted to put a dent in plastic waste, it would encourage its customers to bring their own bags and offer them a discount for doing so.

Yes, the new bags are made from recyclable materials — most Wal-Mart stores also sell reusable bags for 98 cents each — and the company has pledged other sustainability goals such as reducing plastic packaging and using more renewable energy.

And yes, paper and fabric bags may require more energy to produce, but unlike plastic bags, they don’t hang around forever, pose a threat to wildlife or make their way into the food chain when they finally decompose.

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Fortunately, individual actions can have an outsized impact, and for big retailers, consumers are the ultimate boss. And though cultural change is typically slow and comes from the bottom up, popular momentum is building worldwide for ridding ourselves of unnecessary and potentially harmful waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans alone produce about 14.7 million tons of plastic waste annually, and only about 2.15 million tons are recycled with the rest going to landfills.

Realize that entire countries, about 115 of them including the world’s most populous, have already banned most single-use plastics. Last year, Canada went a step further by banning “microbeads,” which are used in cosmetics and toothpaste and eventually get into our water supplies and food chain.

Smartly, The Kroger Co., which is neck-and-neck with Walmart in the grocery business, has announced a total phase-out of single-use plastic bags by 2025. Other retailers will no doubt follow Kroger’s admirable lead.

In the meantime, keep a stash of reusable bags in your car, and whenever possible, refuse the reusable plastic giveaways — and the misleading propaganda.

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