When Walmart single use plastic bags prohibited in April, customer Larry Grant applauded the move, until he found himself drowning in reusable bags.
Each week, Grant orders groceries from Walmart for pickup at a warehouse near his Toronto home. Due to the plastic bag ban, the retailer now packages its items in reusable bags, new for each order.
Grant estimates that he has purchased about 300 in the last six months.
“It’s a little crazy,” he said, pointing to a large stack of blue Walmart bags stuffed in the trunk of his car. “In a month, I can accumulate between 40 and 50.”
Single-use plastic shopping bags are about to disappear in Canada. Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador have already introduced bans, and on Tuesday, the federal government will begin phasing them out across the country.
But the well-intentioned war on plastic bags has had an unintended consequence: As a growing number of retailers eliminate them, some shoppers are piling up lots of reusable bags – more than they could reuse.
CBC News interviewed several Walmart grocery delivery customers who said they are swimming in reusable bags and that the retailer has simply replaced one environmental issue with another.
“Banning plastic bags was a great move, but it wasn’t well thought out,” Grant said. That day, the weekly groceries for his family of four were delivered in eight reusable Walmart bags. Two of the bags each contained only one item.
“I’m really frustrated,” he said. “I just hope they think about this failure… and find a solution.
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Why you need to reuse your reusable bag
When Walmart announced its ban on plastic bags, the US-based company said it was a win for the environment. The bags are problematic because they are often difficult and expensive to recycle. As a result, most end up in landfills or as litter that can enter waterways and harm marine life that eats them by mistake.
Reusable bags are often a better alternative, if you make a living. Several studies have found that bags need to be used multiple times in order for them to have a less harmful impact on the environment than flimsy single-use plastic bags.
“Generally speaking, a reusable bag requires more energy and carbon to make compared to a single-use plastic bag,” said Cal Lakhan, a research scientist at York University’s School of Environmental and Urban Change in Toronto.
“It tends to be durable and significantly higher quality, but that higher quality comes at a cost.”
a 2020 United Nations study estimated that to have less impact on the environment than a single-use plastic bag, a cotton bag should be used 50 to 150 times, while a durable, non-woven polypropylene bag (such as Walmart’s blue ) should be used 10 to 20 times.
“Just because something is reusable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the environment,” Lakhan said. “While I understand and appreciate the effort to try to minimize single-use plastics, we must be very prudent in how we choose to do so.”
What is the solution?
Udi and Natalie Sela from Maple, Ontario, north of Toronto, recently went through their stock of reusable Walmart bags and created a sea of blue in their living room. The couple orders groceries weekly from the retailer and estimates that, like Grant, they have received around 300 so far.
In October, Udi Sela complained to Walmart about the reusable bag problem. He is still waiting for a solution.
“It just creates more waste, which is what we’re trying to avoid in the first place,” he said. “We can’t return them, we can’t do much with them. There are better ways to do it.”
In an email, Walmart Canada said it is exploring ways to reduce the number of reusable bags in circulation, such as looking for alternatives to reusable bags for grocery delivery.
“We continue to learn and adjust along with our customers,” company spokeswoman Stephanie Fusco said in an email.
It did not provide data on how many customers use Walmart’s delivery service, but said it is available in most of Canada.
Metro, which operates in Ontario and Quebec, told CBC News that it has already found a solution. The grocer, who has also banned plastic bags, said he does not use bags for grocery delivery. However, the goods are delivered In a returnable cardboard box or plastic bin. Customers who choose the container option must collect their products upon arrival.
Loblaw Companies Ltd., which operates grocery stores including Loblaws, Zehrs, No Frills and Real Canadian Superstore, plans to implement a nationwide ban on plastic bags early next year. The grocer said he is exploring sustainable options for grocery delivery, including a program where customers can return their reusable bags.
Loblaw did not answer questions about his delivery method for provinces that have already introduced a plastic bag ban.
Sobeys also offered no details about its grocery delivery system, but CBC News found that information on your website. Although Sobeys has banned single-use plastic bags at the checkout counter, according to its site, it still uses them for grocery delivery in Ontario. If customers return the bags, Sobeys says it will recycle them.
The retailer also offers grocery delivery in parts of Quebec and says on its website that it uses paper bags for those deliveries and for curbside pickup across Canada.
Several environmental experts argue that paper bags may actually be worse for the environment than single-use plastic bags.
“Reducing forest stocks, processing, pulping, turning into actual paper, that manufacturing process itself tends to be more energy and water intensive,” Lakhan said.
Sobeys told CBC News that its paper bags are compostable and made from 70 percent recycled paper. The company also said it will soon switch to using paper bags for grocery delivery in Ontario.
More retailers will look for alternatives when, on Tuesday, the federal government bans the manufacture and import of various single-use plastics, including payment bags. A year later, it will ban its sale in Canada.
To ensure Canadians don’t hoard too many reusable bags, Environment and Climate Change Canada said in an email that it will work with stakeholders to educate consumers on the benefits of reusing them.
The department did not mention any measures focused on retailers.
A recent ban on single-use plastic and paper in New Jersey gave rise to numerous complaints that grocery delivery customers were hoarding too many reusable bags. the state is now considering remedieslike requiring delivery services to establish programs to reuse or recycle customers’ unwanted bags.
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