JUST BAG IT: New York’s statewide ban on single-use plastic bags won’t go into effect until March 1, but Muji is already trying to encourage shoppers to use their own bags.

Across New York, residents use 23 billion plastic bags annually, according to the state’s department of conservation. New York’s new law applies to retail outlets required to pay sales tax, although there are numerous exceptions such as bags for takeout and newspaper deliveries and garment bags. Three years ago, California was the first state to institute a statewide plastic bag ban and fee on allowable alternatives.

Muji’s effort is not in direct response to New York’s new legislation, although executives have been cognizant that this was coming, according to Eric Kobuchi, general manager of sales support and store development for Muji USA. Nine of its 19 stores in the U.S. are in New York City, including a new East 59th Street location with a full-service café and a customization center with a laser-engraving machine, monogramming and fabric printing. The five-cent bag charge is in line with the company’s philosophy to reduce waste and to be eco-friendly and sustainable, Kobuchi said.

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“So we thought this would be a good time to start this and to be a retail pioneer in terms of the retail corporations in New York. I wouldn’t say it’s our hope that other companies will follow our lead. But if we do have a positive influence on other companies to help reduce bag use that is always positive. But we’re doing this internally — more for ourselves than for anyone else,” he said.

Muji typically uses between 6 million to 8 million bags a year in North America. Muji also has locations in California and Massachusetts — where legislators are still hammering out the parameters to ban plastic bags in select cities. The retailer’s stores in San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Angeles and Arcadia, Calif., charge shoppers 10 cents for a reusable shopping bag. With 400 stores in Japan, 200 stores in China and roughly 100 more in southeast Asia, Muji’s presence in east Asia is quite strong, Kobuchi said, adding that the city of Arcadia has a huge Asian and Asian-American population.

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To clue customers into the new program, Muji has set up large signs in the New York stores, and is spreading the news via social media and an e-mailed newsletter. The fee for consumers who prefer to have a bag is not to recoup the cost of the bag and the nickel or dime does not cover the cost, Kobuchi said. “It’s mainly to get our customers to use their own bags.”

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