Patrons at the Collingswood Farmers’ Market can rent out reusable bags. Can the service spread as businesses ease into single-use bag bans?
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 out 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 three years, but it has new relevance as Collingswood and other communities—including Philly—move forward with bans on single-use plastic bags. Can this model, if replicated, help ease the transition as both businesses and consumers everywhere kiss flimsy carryout bags goodbye?
As bags are banned, staying fair to farmers
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 said that the idea occurred to her around three years ago, when the town began considering a single-use plastic bag ban. And while she supports a ban wholeheartedly, she also worries about the effect it could have on vendors at the market. What if customers are deterred from making a purchase because they don’t have bags with them—and farmers can’t offer plastic ones?
“The consequence of that is the farmers aren’t selling as much produce,” Aspinwall said. “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 turn to.”
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 said. “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.
Aspinwell also said 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 said. “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,” Aspinwall said. “Our usage has been steadily increasing every year, but it’s still not a lot. We sell more bags than we lend out.”
Can bag shares spread?
That may change as Collingswood begins implementing its ban on single-use plastic bags, which passed in October and becomes mandatory on April 15, 2020. Camden County, where Collingswood is located, also recently banned single-use bags, utensils and straws at county facilities and events. At least 24 municipalities in New Jersey have similar bans in place, with legislation pending in others.
The Collingswood ordinance, which was introduced by the borough’s Green Team, also requires that retailers charge customers 10 cents for use of paper bags, as a means to encourage reusable bag use. As such, the ban’s 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. “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.”
Still, many shoppers are 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 when the ban goes into effect, 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 Borough of Collingswood spokesperson Cass Duffey.
“While I am as much a champion for green initiatives as anybody, there are practical implications,” Duffey said. “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.”
To address that concern, Duffey said that the municipality is looking into ways it can help businesses prepare before the ban goes into effect. The Business Improvement District, for example, is currently offering free paper bags to retailers and considering a long-term subsidized bag program for businesses to help offset the costs of purchasing reusable bags.
The Collingswood Bag Share service could a viable option for businesses. While Duffy said that the borough wouldn’t administer the service itself, individual stores can 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 said. “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 farmer’s 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 said.
This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project. It was originally reported by Brianna Baker for Green Philly, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.