Winn-Dixie, Publix Learn That No Eco-Friendly Deed Goes Unpunished

Chalk this one up to the ultimate eco-friendly rule: You can't win. For years, grocery stores have been pushing their efforts to be seen as more environmentally friendly and one of the favorite techniques has been getting consumers to purchase reusable bags, instead of making the time-honored "paper or plastic" choice.

Reusable bags were good for the consumer, in that the bags held a lot more and the customer was often given a discount. And it was good for the retailer—who saved on the bag supplies—and it was good for the planet. What could possibly go wrong?

Winn-Dixie and Publix this week learned exactly what can go wrong: Lead. (Could these chains be called lead leaders?) "There is a need to look at this from a long-term environmental perspective to determine if the potential exists that these bags cannot be disposed of safely. For this reason, we feel it’s better to stop selling them now," Winn-Dixie said in a statement. The problems began when The Tampa Tribune tested the bags. "Publix reusable bags had lead levels that exceed federal limits for paint and exceeded rules coming soon for children's toys," the story said.

The main culprit? Attractive eco-friendly pictures on the bags. "The more elaborate the illustrations on the bags, the more likely they contained toxins. Yellow and green paint on bags is a common carrier of lead." And, yes, the bags were made in that lead-friendliest of countries: China.

Although lead is considered lethal at almost any level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set 100 parts per million as the threshold when action is required. According to the Tribune tests, some of the tested bags cleared that number, with two Winn-Dixie samples hitting 117 and 121 and two Publix samples hitting 87 and 194. Some Wegmans bags were found with 799.

That said, the story said it may not be as bad as it sounds. "The lead appears to be in a form that is not easily extracted or leached. It is not in a form that would rub off on food simply by touching the bag, like wet paint but, over time, bags wear down and paint can flake off and threads can fray, releasing the lead."

Oh well. Guess it's back to paper bags.