Despite Sustainability Concerns, Sandwich Bags Sticking Around

Product Still on Many Teachers' Lists for Students, With Plastic-Storage-Container Sales Faring Far Worse

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Though a recent New York Times article said growing environmental consciousness among school administrators, parents and mean green peer pressure are hurting sales of food bags, a review of back-to-school lists from several districts nationwide suggests otherwise, as many teachers are asking kids to bring boxes of sandwich and freezer bags from home for classroom use. Moreover, available data on bags and storage containers suggest that while food bags are facing a tough time, their ostensibly greener alternative -- the reusable plastic storage container -- is doing far worse.

Unit sales of sandwich and freezer bags were down 1.8% for the 12 weeks ended Aug. 7 (during summer break), according to SymphonyIRI, though that was better than the 3.2% decline for the 52 weeks ended then. Meanwhile, unit volume of household and kitchen storage containers was down a whopping 10.5% for the most recent 12 weeks, worse than the 6.7% drop for the year. One reason could be prices, up 9.5% on the containers in the most recent period, vs. only 2.3% on bags.

And, in fact, the paper lunch-bag, facing growing competition from insulated reusable bags that have been heavily promoted everywhere from Walmart to Staples to Costco and Trader Joe's, is far more endangered than either plastic bags or containers. Unit sales of paper bags plummeted 19% in the 12 weeks ended Aug. 7 (again, while school was out), hastening an already steep 13% decline for the full year. That's even after prices have started to edge down on lunch bags after a small 3% price increase for the full year.

Back-to-school remains the biggest season of the year for plastic-bag marketers, with SymphonyIRI data from Deutsche Bank showing unit sales generally around 10% higher each year in the third quarter compared to others for the category. But this year, the baggie brands appear to be covering their environmental bets.

SCJ's Ziploc has recently run ads focusing on its reusable containers, and Glad included Gladware reusable containers rather than bags as part of Clorox Co.'s "Back to School Kits" distributed to bloggers last month.

Food bags and school lunches get buffeted by a lot of sometimes conflicting economic forces. During recessions, fewer people eat out, meaning more meals at home and more leftovers to store. But more kids also qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Price lunch program, adding to incentives for parents not to pack lunches.

On its YouTube channel, Ziploc touts its RecycleBank program.
On its YouTube channel, Ziploc touts its RecycleBank program.

Then there's the nutrition angle. The Little Village School, a public elementary in Chicago, last year banned any form of packed lunch without a medical excuse, citing the superior nutrition of school lunches. So far, it doesn't look like any other schools have followed suit. Many schools are giving the imprimatur of official approval to plastic bags via school-supply lists from teachers. Districts in Illinois, Wisconsin, Virginia, Oregon, Washington and North Carolina, among others, all have teachers of elementary-age children asking each to bring one or two boxes of sandwich or freezer bags for classroom use, even in liberal and eco-conscious college towns such as Madison, Wis., and Durham, N.C.

Many of those lists mention Ziploc by name, and for good reason, aside from it being the category's leading brand. Ziploc has piggybacked on General Mills' Box Tops for Education program for many years and makes it a key part of back-to-school marketing efforts, including highlighting that every box has two box tops worth 10 cents each toward school programs.

"The teachers set the supply lists," said Renee Sams, principal of John S. Clark Elementary School in Waukegan, Ill., where teachers in most of the elementary grades have asked for boxes of plastic bags this year. "I have not heard one complaint from a parent about it."

The "Rethinking School Lunch Guide" from the Center for Ecoliteracy does encourage use of reusable containers (vs. plastic bags). But not even all green-school advocates have fully taken up the anti-baggie cudgel.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based Green Schools Initiative does offer plenty of "Waste-Free Lunch" tips that include avoiding or reusing plastic bags or opting for reusable containers. But in a nod to its Oakland-based neighbor Clorox Co., majority owner of Glad (along with minority partner Procter & Gamble Co.), the Green Schools Initiative notes that "Many Glad products are made with polypropylene and are PVC-free, including Glad bags, Gladware reusable containers and Glad plastic wrap. Avoid #3 plastics."

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