Single Use Plastic Bag Ban Creates Unintended Problems in Canada [Feature/Expert Interviews]

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For Canadian shoppers there are a couple of scenarios that might feel familiar within the current movement against single-use plastic bags (SUPB).  

Here’s one. You show up at your local grocery store in a jurisdiction that has banned SUPBs only to realize you’ve left your reusable shopping bags at home. You either have to buy more reusable bags at the store, or return home to retrieve them. Many of us already have drawers bursting with these cotton, or plastic woven tote bags.

Here’s another one: you’re at the automatic checkout machine of your local drug store and you select to purchase a paper bag or reusable bag at the terminal, but there are no bags at the station, nor any available staff members to retrieve them. 

These are just a couple of the pain points in the mission by jurisdictions to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic waste from our daily lives and from the environment. While eliminating single-use plastic is a commendable and sensible pursuit, there are various unintended consequences that continue to hinder this movement. But stakeholders and experts tell Retail Insider there are opportunities to stamp out these chokepoints to maintain convenience for Canadian shoppers, while also embracing the reusable shopping bag for innovative marketing initiatives.

Chokepoints in the battle against single use bags

Shoppers Drug Mart Self-Checkouts (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

There are currently more than 100 local governments across Canada that have banned SUPBs, said Greg Wilson, director of government relations with the Retail Council of Canada in B.C. “And in December, the federal government is banning a whole bunch of plastics, including plastic bags.” 

Indeed, the federal government has already banned the manufacture and import for sale of single-use plastics, including shopping bags. That ban came into effect in December, 2022, but the sale of SUPBs and other single use plastic items will be banned beginning this December, giving retailers time to adjust and use up their existing inventory.

This movement is a good thing when it comes to sustainability in retail, and retailers are generally pleased that governments are taking action, Wilson said. The challenge is the bans are varied and layered across jurisdictions. “For example, in B.C… we have on our website 14 different municipalities with bans in place right now. Most of them are identical. A few of them are not identical.”

For instance, a customer at a grocery store in Vancouver cannot receive an SUPB to carry their groceries, but just across Boundary Road at a store in Burnaby, plastic bags are still available for a small charge. 

In some cases, the bans don’t apply to certain types of plastic bags meant for fruits and veggies or nails and screws, Wilson said. “There can be some “weird exceptions” that can be tough for a retailer to understand.

Wilson acknowledges the scenario in which a customer wants to buy a reusable bag at the automatic checkout, but staff are not available to retrieve one. “It’s tough to hire staff, and so a lot more retailers are now moving towards automatic checkouts,” Wilson said. “Those automatic checkouts are great, but it’s important for retailers to examine that customer experience as well.” 

Are reusable shopping bags better for the environment?

“The presumption that reusable bags lead to more sustainable outcomes is somewhat based on a faulty premise,” said Calvin Lakhan, a waste management research scientist at York University.

“Not all reusable bags are created equal, “Lakhan said in an interview, noting that some bags that are considered reusable are so thin they can’t be used more than a few times. “The durability of these cheaper reusable bags is quite questionable.”

Manufacturers and retailers should be providing stronger bags to last much longer, Lakhan said. But even then, the environmental benefit is dubious. “Some reusable bags have to be used hundreds or even thousands of times before you yield an environmental benefit relative to the plastic bag.” 

“The term single use plastic bag can be a misnomer as well,” Lakhan added. Many people do re-use them for carrying their lunch, or use them as garbage bags. 

Another unintended consequence of the SUPB ban is many Canadians have stockpiles of cotton or plastic reusable bags. 

Reusable bags can be environmentally superior to SUPBs, if they are reused many times, according to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme on single-use plastic from 2020. 

For example, a cotton bag needs to be used 50-150 times to have less impact on the climate compared to one SUPB, the report said. “A thick and durable polypropylene bag must be used for an estimated 10-20 times, and a slimmer but still reusable polyethylene bag 5-10 times, to have the same climate impacts as a SUPB. This requires not only durability of the bags, but also consumers to reuse each bag many times.”

Lakhan said he’s among the many Canadians with dozens of reusable bags in his car. “You forget it in your car, or you forget it at home, and then you buy more and then you end up stockpiling these bags that use so much more environmental resources to make.”

Finding ways to innovate with reusable bags

Value Village with $2.49 Medium Reusable Bags (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

Those reusable bags are better left in your drawer or closet than going to landfills or polluting our greenspaces and waterways, said Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner and retail strategist with JC Williams Group.

Ending SUPBs “is kind of a no-brainer initiative” for retailers, Hutcheson said. 

But the challenge is switching to a bag program that doesn’t end up polluting the world with an endless supply of reusable bags. That effort must blend education, convenience and even clever marketing strategies that create a win-win-win for the environment, the consumer and the retailer, Hutcheson said. 

If the bags are strong and useful, then customers will carry those branded bags everywhere they shop. It’s a simple little marketing win, Hutcheson said. “I bought something from Browns recently, and (the item came) in a much hardier bag…I use it all the time because it’s a really great reusable bag.”

To prevent reusable bag overload, retailers have a more involved role to play. They should leverage their social media channels, service apps, and omnichannel messaging to remind people to bring their reusable bags and to emphasize why these rules are in place to begin with so people start developing an innate respect for the damage bags can do for the environment, Hutcheson said. 

Moreover, retailers could develop a loyalty program through a QR code on a bag that rewards shoppers with some kind of gamified incentive every time they bring the same bag into their store — or even a network of stores.

Those rewards could be shared among the customers but also other organizations involved with environmental stewardship, Hutcheson said. 

“There are ways the retailer can have some fun in educating customers (about re-using the same reusable bags), because I think once they start thinking about this, it’s not a pain in the neck,” Hutcheson said. It’s about helping educate and incentivizing people to form retail habits that help the environment.

Retail Insider reached out to two of Canada’s largest grocery companies Sobeys and Loblaws with questions about SUPB bans and reusable bag strategies — and potential solutions to ease the pain points for customers, but neither company responded by deadline.

Because policymakers are unlikely to wind back SUPB bans, the onus will increasingly fall on customers, Lakhan said. Ultimately, the bans only make sense if we continue to routinely re-use our reusable bags.

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Evan Duggan
Evan Duggan
Evan is a freelance journalist in Vancouver. In addition to Retail Insider, Evan's work has appeared in the Vancouver Sun and the Postmedia network, RENX, Business in Vancouver, Reuters, the Bangkok Post and many others.

11 COMMENTS

  1. The customer experience at most grocery retailers was already poor — this has only made it worse. Additionally I have noted the ever increasing price of these so-called reusable bags (my local Metro recently eliminated the 35 cent option and replaced them a slightly larger 50 cent option. The irony is I likely re-used single-use bags more often than I have re-used ‘reusable’ bags.

  2. Completely a sham. No one reuses a bag 100s if not 1000s of times. It clearly made any environmental benefits void , if not worse. Tech has come along way and biodegradable “single” use bags are now available making the entire issue moot if they just used them. But it’s way better optics for a government to ban something showing some garbage virtue signaling junk than actually using technology to make reasonable change. And I put the word “single” in quotations before because everyone knows damn well that we all reuse single-use plastic bags for 100 purposes every day. It is literally the definition of recycling.

  3. OK, so now I’m throwing my garbage out in a .50 tote instead of a SUPB. I ran out of my Co-op cornstarch bags. Sigh. Can’t wait to see when the government bans the use of that type of bag because the dumps are full of them. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • One of the reasons I wanted this article in Retail Insider is because I have a ton of reusable bags at my home as well. There’s no way I’ll ever use them all — and recently I ordered groceries from Walmart and I got quite a few bags to add to my collection. At this point I’m thinking that reusable bags could be worse for the environment than what we had before as I would also reuse the plastic ones I’d get from the grocery/drug store.

    • I had a bag from MEC years ago and it did start to get sticky and fall apart, so it can be done. You still need plastic for garbage.

  4. It’s funny in Canada and America we are so concerned about convenience for ourselves that this becomes a problem. Mean while all over the world SUPB are replaced by reusable bags or plant based biodegradable bags and have been replaced for years. The one that gets me is when people go to the grocery store and forget their bags in the car then buy new bags instead of simply taking their groceries to the car in the cart they are already using and pack in the car- because that’s an inconvenience to them. But the companies need to be help accountable too. The bags I see return again and again are the ones that can fold down to nothing and fit in a purse or back pocket not the horrible plastic ones that dont fold down at all. Really no matter which way we look at it unless society changes along with the governments laws on what should be used (with more consistency SUPB vs Produce bags) it’s just going to get worse.

  5. We have other uses for plastic shopping bags. It’s a misclassification of the checkout bags for the purpose of the ban. As a man, I do not carry any bags around. This is a major inconvenience.

  6. I reuse Loblaws bags uncountable times, you fold them into a small piece, use a rubber band and put them in your purse or pocket and they can be used many many times. And they always fail to mention that you still need a plastic bag for garbage, you can’t use anything else, which means you have now buy a plastic bag full of other plastic bags. Look at the photo here of the Shopper’s checkout, they have large plastic bags inside the garbage cans. What if you go to a store and forget your reusable bag and it’s raining and they only have paper bags? you’ll never even get to your car or to your house before it disintegrates.
    A few years ago, I had special disintegrating bags from MEC in Vancouver that were made of some sugar product, and sure enough I left a couple in a closet in the damp and they started to fall apart. So it can be done.
    This is just more BS from a Federal government out of touch with society.

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