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Nostalgia keeps Sobeys plastic bags alive

In Atlantic Canada, “Sobeys bags” take on their own cultural significance
(CNW Group/Sobeys Inc.)

Sobeys phased out plastic grocery bags across the country this week, but for many Atlantic Canadians the "Sobeys bag" will live on in their kitchen cupboards.

The grocery chain, which grew from a family business founded in Stellarton, N.S., in the early 1900s, announced last summer it would eliminate the plastic shopping bags by February, offering customers reusable totes or paper bags instead.

Sobeys spokeswoman Violet MacLeod said the plastic bags would be removed from stores at midnight on Thursday. She said there are "not many left" in stores but the remaining bags would be sent back to the supplier and recycled.

READ: Sobeys to remove plastic bags from all stores next year

The deadline has prompted a wave of nostalgia on the East Coast, where the chain's plastic bags have taken on their own cultural significance and the term "Sobeys bag" has become a generic term for "plastic bag." The regional semantic change has even been noted in a 2016 entry to the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles.

On social media and radio shows in the region, residents are paying homage this week to the bags, often repurposed to line leaky shoes or cart leftovers home from a family dinner.

MacLeod said the company's announcement last summer ignited a flurry of conversation about the bag's significance to the Atlantic region as people shared their personal uses for the bag.

"In Atlantic Canada, we know the bag is iconic. It is well-known and beloved," MacLeod said in a telephone interview.

In August 2019, Sobeys will introduce a line of reusable mesh produce bags made from recycled water bottles. (CNW Group/Sobeys Inc.)

In August 2019, Sobeys introduced a line of reusable mesh produce bags made from recycled water bottles. (CNW Group/Sobeys Inc.)

"Atlantic Canada is our home, it is the heart and soul of Sobeys. It's very encouraging and humbling to see customers excited to go on this journey with us, but also looking back and sharing nostalgia about the history of the company."

The company has said the change would eliminate the use of 225 million bags annually at more than 250 stores across country, 83 of which are in Atlantic Canada.

The change comes as Atlantic provinces have begun rolling out province-wide bans on retail plastic bags.

Newfoundland and Labrador announced this week its ban would come into effect July 1. Nova Scotia introduced its own legislation last fall.

Prince Edward Island's plastic bag ban came into effect last summer and MacLeod said the province had been  a successful testing ground for the company's switch.

She said over 90% of customers in Prince Edward Island have since changed to reusable bags and less than 10% have been using paper bags.

Vittoria Viralli, vice-president, sustainability, drove Sobeys national commitment to removing plastic grocery bags from all Sobeys stores. (CNW Group/Sobeys Inc.)

Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson said Thursday the chain's move reflected people's growing desire to reduce their plastic use.

"People have changed the way they walk into grocery stores. I'm seeing more people in places, even when there aren't bans, that are using alternatives to plastic," he said.

Wilson said he's also met with Loblaw representatives who have expressed their interest in pursuing alternatives to plastic.

"It's encouraging to see that although we do put legislation out there, that the industry ... actually likes to lead also," Wilson said.

READ: Big brand names try reusable containers

MacLeod said plastic packaging remained a "challenge" for grocery stores, but said there were plans to reduce its use in other ways. IGA stores in Quebec, also owned by the company, began encouraging people to bring reusable containers for prepared foods, bulk items and produce.

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