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Plastic bag ban battle begins in Montreal

Quebec grocery store association present at first public hearing

The much-mediatized public debate over a possible ban on the use of plastic bags by food stores has begun at Montreal's city hall.

And though grocery industry stakeholders will take part, they think the city is making a mountain out of an environmental mole hill.

"Our members are facing much more serious environmental issues than plastic bag use," said Pierre-Alexandre Blouin, vice-president of public affairs at Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec, which represents more than 9,000 grocery stores.

He was one of roughly 30 people who attended the first public hearing on the issue before Montreal's standing committee on the environment and sustainable development on Tuesday night.

Briefs and arguments by citizens and groups like the ADA will be heard on June 3, 4 and 8.

According to Blouin, plastic bags are way down the environmental priority list for grocery store owners. "It is a minor issue compared to organic waste," he said.

He noted that a government regulation gives Quebec grocers until 2020 to remove all organic waste from landfill-bound garbage generated by their stores.

Organic waste currently accounts for 60 per cent of food store waste. "We've currently only reduced waste by 18 per cent," said Blouin.  "We've got a long way to go."

Plastic bags, he noted, account for less than 1 per cent of garbage sent to landfill sites.

Blouin said many Quebec grocery store owners began voluntarily tackling the plastic bag issue in 2009, when they started charging customers five cents a bag.

He credited that move, together with government investment in recycling plastic and public awareness campaigns aimed at getting people to use reusable bags, for a 50-per cent reduction in plastic bag use, from 2.2 billion bags in 2007 to 1 billion in 2010.

According to the province's recycling agency, Recyc-Québec, grocery plastic bags are used for an average of 20 minutes before heading mostly to landfills where they take 400 years to decompose.

Each Quebecer is estimated to use an average of 350 bags a year.

"We've already cut plastic bag use in half, but now the city wants to do more," said Blouin.  "The problem is they don't know what to do, and the solutions being discussed aren't all that green."

Nathalie St-Pierre agrees. “There has already been a lot of effort made to reduce plastic bag use, especially in the grocery sector, which has really been a success story," said St-Pierre, vice-president of the Montreal-based Quebec region of the Retail Council of Canada.

She added that alternative solutions like paper bags and garbage bags take even longer to decompose because they are thicker than grocery bags. Similarly, some food stores–especially C-stores and butcher shops–rely heavily on plastic bags.

"I think there will always be a need for plastic bags, so there’s no point in banning them,” said St-Pierre, who also attended the hearing on Tuesday.  "That's especially true if alternatives leave a bigger environmental footprint."

Both the ADA and Retail Council will present briefs at the hearings on June 3.

Montreal is the latest city to look look at ways to curb plastic bag usage. In 2008, Toronto imposed a five-cent fee on plastic bags but scrapped the charge a few years later.

Last year, California passed legislation banning plastic bags. California was to begin pulling plastic bags out of checkout counters at large grocery stores this summer. The ban was scheduled to expand to convenience stores and pharmacies in 2016.

But in February the plan was put on hold when the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents bag manufacturers, got together a petition with 800,000 signatures, enough to place the issue before state voters next year.

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