The Albertsons store in Ashland next month will become the first store in the company's chain to get rid of plastic bags

The Albertsons store in Ashland next month will become the first store in the company's chain to get rid of plastic bags — and to celebrate this environmentally friendly move, it's holding a contest among the town's three elementary schools to see who can bring in the most plastic bags.

The store, on Tolman Creek Road at Ashland Street, is undergoing a facelift that will include energy-efficient lighting and coolers, motion-activated LED lights in cases and reusable tote bags and boxes in place of plastic bags.

The store has installed drop bins for students at Helman, Walker and Bellview schools, and any school that brings in more than 4,000 bags — or 120 pounds of bags — wins a TREX bench for its playground. The benches, manufactured from melted-down plastic bags, are highly weather-resistant.

The students are halfway to their goal after one week. The contest runs for three more weeks, and prizes will be awarded Feb. 22, the date scheduled for the reopening of the "freshened up" store, said Lilia Rodriguez, communications manager for Albertsons, headquartered in Fullerton, Calif.

The schools will also each win $250 gift certificates, to be spend as they decide, said store director Paige Vaughan.

The "bagless" experiment is part of an attempt to become more environmentally sustainable and shrink the company's carbon footprint, said Vaughan.

"Some people may be upset about the change, but not many, since 90 percent of customers already bring market bags," said Vaughan. "I was at the Chamber of Commerce meeting and told them — and everyone cheered."

One customer said the plastic bags are perfect for picking up dog feces, and he will miss them.

But many others, such as Linda Gerschler, mother of Grayson Gerschler, a Bellview student who was dropping off plastic bags, said, "It will be fantastic if I never see another plastic bag again."

Albertsons joins other Ashland markets — the Ashland Food Co-op, Shop 'N' Kart and Market of Choice — in eliminating plastic bags, but all still offer paper bags. The Co-op charges 10 cents for them.

Opponents of plastic bags tried for a statewide ban in the last Oregon legislative session but the bill died.

There has been talk of a ban in Ashland, but the administrator's office says nothing is on the agenda at this time.

The main objection to plastic bags is that they're hard to recycle and end up in landfills.

"I'm tired of dealing with all the plastic ... I care about all the stuff put in the landfill," said Jeannie Soretto, who was leaving Albertsons with five full cloth market bags.

Max Schmeling, father of second-grader Marina Schmeling, who was dropping off plastic bags from Bellview School, said the change at Albertsons is "a great idea because everywhere I look, I see plastic bags blowing around and ending up in corners with the leaves. It's nice to have an alternative."

"I'm glad to see them go bye-bye," said shopper Sue Powell, who takes her plastic bags to the Ashland Recycling Center on Water Street. "I am forfeiting my convenience for the good of the planet. That's a pretty easy choice."

The store is displaying reusable tote bags as cheap as 25 cents. Longer-lasting bags cost $1, while insulated bags with a zipper cost $2.49. Tote boxes made from recycled cardboard cost $1.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.