Sharing plastic bags from the Collingswood Farmers Market

We all know and love bike share programs, like Philly’s own Indego. But in South Jersey, Collingswood Farmer’s Market has put its own twist on this model: a reusable bag sharing scheme.

As part of the Collingswood Bag Share, customers who don’t have a reusable shopping bag with them can stop at a table at the market and rent a bag. The volunteers at the table simply write down the customer’s name and contact details, along with the unique number assigned to that bag, and request that it be returned as soon as possible.

The program has been running for several years, but it has new relevance from New Jersey and other communities – including Philly — have banned single-use plastic bags. Can this model, if replicated, help businesses and consumers around the world say goodbye to flimsy carry-out bags?

How the Reusable Bag Sharing Program Started

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

Aspinwall says the idea came to him in 2016, when the city began considering a ban on single-use plastic bags. And while she wholeheartedly supported the ban, she worried about the effect it might have on market vendors. 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 this is that farmers don’t sell as much product,” says Aspinwall. “It affects their bottom line. And for me, it is very important to keep farmers in business. So at the time, we wanted to think about different ideas to make sure that even if people couldn’t use a plastic bag, they had another alternative.

“To me, it’s very important to keep farmers in business,” says Aspinwall. “So we wanted to think about 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 its experience in preserving farmland. She worked as a land preservation specialist in Morris Land Conservancy before moving to Collingswood with her family in 2011. After arriving, she looked forward to continuing to support agriculture in New Jersey, which led her to FFM.

“The Collingswood Farmer’s Market is quite simply the coolest place ever,” says Aspinwall. “It’s a great place where people can go on Saturday mornings just to hang out, eat good food, good produce, listen to local music. It’s just a great meeting place for the community.

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

Green Team Commissioner and Founder Joan Leonard and Deputy Market Manager Kim Goodman

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

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

Although the service ran smoothly, it was not used as frequently as Aspinwall would like. “Not many people know about the program. We struggle to get the word out,” she says. “Our usage is steadily increasing every year, but it’s still not a lot. We sell more bags than we lend.

The success of the plastic ban relies on reusable products

Like Philadelphia, Collingswood, New Jersey banned single-use plastic bags in 2019. Since then, New Jersey has taken the bold step of ban almost all plastic bags, plastic foam containers and cups, and even paper bags at major grocery stores. After pandemic delay, Philly ban officially took effect in April, 2022, the City announcing a $150 fee every time a business is caught giving away a plastic bag. Philadelphia retailers are allowed to charge customers for paper bags, which are more expensive.

As such, the success of the bans largely depends on consumers taking the initiative to bring their own bags to stores and markets. Aspinwall said she had seen the tide turn in that direction before.

“When I look at the Farmer’s Market customers this year in particular, almost everyone has their own reusable bag,” Aspinwall said in 2019. “Whether it’s something they bought from us, borrowed, or brought from home They’re bringing picnic-style baskets, they’re bringing carts in. There aren’t a lot of people walking around with single-use plastic bags anymore.

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

However, many buyers are still in the habit of using the free single-use grocery bags available in stores. And sometimes even the most anti-plastic consumers forget their tote bags at home. It is therefore the responsibility of the retailers to provide another type of bag, which will have a cost. Many share Aspinwall’s concerns about the bottom line for farmers and other businesses with slimmer profit margins, including Cass Duffey, now the Borough of Collingswood administrator.

“While I’m as much a champion of green initiatives as anyone, there are practical implications,” Duffey says. “If tomorrow you tell a business that relies heavily on bags that they can’t use plastic bags, it will 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 lend subsidized bags to customers, rather than sell them – such a solution would make them more accessible to low-income customers, while avoiding the costs of handing out unlimited free bags.

“Honestly, I’m all for anything that helps reduce single-use bags and increase reusable bags,” Duffy says. “So I would be open to that if there was a company that offered a bag sharing program. We would absolutely promote it.

Aspinwall, meanwhile, just hopes more farmers’ market customers will use the program. But if it is taken over by other businesses in Collingswood – or even in other towns?

“I’m glad we can be part of this solution,” she said.

This post was originally published in 2019. It’s still an idea we should steal.

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