Plastic's last days? Perhaps

A growing number of North American cities are banning plastic bags

Christy McMullen isn’t looking forward to Jan. 1, 2013. That’s when the city of Toronto’s ban on single-use plastic bags takes effect.

“We took the heat from customers when the city put the five-cent fee on bags and now we’ll have to deal with customers upset about the ban,” says the store manager of Summerhill Market in midtown Toronto.

It’s a dilemma retailers across North America are facing as cities roll out bylaws banning plastic shopping bags. More than 40 towns in California have banned bags. A few months ago, Toronto did the same.

The whole trend, however, started in tiny Leaf Rapids, Man., a hardy 12-hour drive north of Winnipeg. It banned the bags back in 2007.

Fellow Manitoba towns Snowy Lake, and Thompson, followed suit in 2010, as did Wood Buffalo, Alta. That town recently amended its bylaw to allow plastic shopping bags for items deemed “greasy,” “dirty” or “personal” such as meat, flowers and feminine hygiene products.

Regardless, most consumers seem to favour plastic bag bans. An Angus-Reid survey in June showed that 58 per cent of Canadians support banning plastic shopping bags while 39 per cent are opposed.

Yet opinions can change in the checkout line. When Leaf Rapids banned the bags a lot of customers complained, says Ken Seymour, manager of a local Fields store. “But when they realized they had no choice, they started bringing their own bags and now it’s going well.”

Most customers at Import Connection, an ethnic grocery store in Wood Buffalo, understand the ban now, says the manager, Masira Akhbar.

“But some people still give us a hard time and I’ve had people just drop all their groceries on the counter and walk out because I couldn’t give them a bag.”

John Scott, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, says that in the case of Toronto’s plastic bag ban, retailers haven’t been given adequate time to prepare.

“Many front ends are set up to cater to plastic bags and may not work with other types of bags. So there may be a capital cost to adapt," he says.

Mike Lupien, director of communications for Sobeys in Western Canada, sees both pluses and negatives to grocery stores in towns where plastic bags have been outlawed. Not having to give out the bags is actually a cost saver for the two Sobeys franchises in Wood Buffalo. And sales of kitchen garbage bags have sharply spiked.

However, it takes longer to pack groceries into reusable bags because the bag stands at the checkouts are a different size. “We spent two months training staff and had signage all over the stores to remind people that the ban was coming,” says Lupien.

Getting rid of current bag inventory is another issue, especially for independents. Chains can send surplus bags to stores in towns with no ban, points out David Wilkes, senior VP of the Retail Council of Canada’s grocery division.

Keeping customers who do not come prepared with reusable bags happy is another matter. Stores can offer them paper bags. But paper has downsides, including a higher cost to retailers and poor green credentials. Paper doesn’t hold up well when wet, either.

“Our advice to grocers is to increase the availability of reusable bags,” says Wilkes. “In the end, there isn’t much choice but to adapt. The law is the law.”

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