Business

We're still stockpiling reusable bags. Big grocers have adopted solutions, but experts have concerns

To combat Canada's growing reusable bag problem, Walmart just launched a recycling pilot program. Sobeys and Loblaw-owned chains are now delivering groceries in paper bags. But some environmental experts argue these solutions don't quite cut it.

Walmart has launched a free national recycling pilot program for its reusable bags

Grocers’ solutions unlikely to solve Canada’s reusable bag problem

26 days ago
Duration 2:04
Reusable bags were meant to be a solution to Canada’s plastic bag ban, but the sheer amount of them in people’s homes has created another problem. Some major grocery chains are attempting solutions, but experts say they’re not doing enough.

Canada's plastic bag ban has had an unintended consequence: a proliferation of reusable bags piling up in basements, closets and, eventually, landfills.

"They're everywhere," said environmental researcher Tony Walker. "We're drowning in them, and we shouldn't be."

To combat the problem, several of Canada's big grocers have introduced solutions. Last week, Walmart launched a free national recycling pilot program for the retailer's reusable blue bags. Competitors Sobeys and chains owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd. use recyclable paper bags for grocery delivery.

But some environmental experts argue that paper bags are also problematic and that the best solutions are those that help customers actually reuse their reusable bags.

"We just can't keep giving [them] out," said Walker, a professor at Dalhousie University's School for Resource and Environmental Studies in Halifax. "We're only meant to have a few of them, and we're meant to use them until they fall apart."

In late 2022, the federal government rolled out a ban on the manufacture, import and sale of several single-use plastics, including checkout bags. The regulations are being contested in court, but in the meantime, they remain in effect.

A man and a woman stand in their living room piling up blue Walmart reusable bags.
The Selas take stock of the reusable bags they've amassed from Walmart grocery delivery. They've signed up for the retailer's free national recycling pilot program. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)

The regulations have made single-use shopping bags scarce in Canada, but they've also led to the proliferation of reusable bags, especially for grocery delivery.

"It just creates more waste, which is what we're trying to avoid in the first place," Walmart customer Udi Sela said in a CBC News interview in late 2022.

At the time, Sela, who lives in Maple, Ont., estimated his family had acquired about 300 reusable Walmart bags via grocery delivery.

"We can't return them, we can't do much with them."

Now, a little more than a year later, Walmart has launched a pilot project to address the problem.

It allows customers to pack up their unwanted reusable Walmart blue bags and ship them — at no charge — to a facility where they'll get a second life.

How it works

According to Walmart, bags in good condition will be laundered and donated to charity, primarily Food Banks Canada. Damaged bags will get recycled into other materials. Reusable bags typically can't go in blue bins because they're costly and difficult to recycle.

Customers must sign up for Walmart's program, and enrolment is limited.

Jennifer Barbazza, Walmart's senior manager of sustainability, said the retailer will fine-tune the details as the program progresses.

"[We] know that some customers have more reusable bags than maybe they need," she said. "One of the things that we're really excited to learn about from the pilot is customer acceptance and customer feedback."

WATCH | Is your home overrun with reusable bags? Join the club:

Is your home overrun with reusable bags? You're not alone.

4 months ago
Duration 7:25
Reusable bags are living rent free in closets and car trunks across the country. Most major retailers made the switch away from single-use plastic bags about a year ago, but it's taking time for some customers to catch on. They're forgetting to bring their bags with them, and buying more every week.

Udi Sela has already signed up.

"I definitely think it's a step in the right direction," he said in an interview on Friday. "It's something that needed to be done a while ago. God knows we've got a ton of bags kind of piled up."

He said he's concerned that some customers may find mailing the bags a hurdle. However, it's not deterring Sela, who soon plans to ship hundreds. 

Passing the buck?

Not everyone is keen on Walmart's project. Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner with Toronto Environmental Alliance, said donating the bags to the food bank is just passing on the problem.

"We need to remove waste from the system entirely, and just sending these somewhere else for someone else to deal with is not really a solution," she said.

Alfred said a better option is a program Walmart piloted in Guelph, Ont., in 2022. For a fee, customers could check out reusable bags from an in-store kiosk and later return them to be cleaned and reused.

"That's a real circular reuse system," she said.

Two Walmart employees stand next to a kiosk here customers could, for a fee, get a resuable bag.
Walmart launched a pilot program in Guelph, Ont., in 2022. For a fee, customers could check out reusable bags from an in-store kiosk and then return them to be cleaned and reused. (Walmart Canada)

Walmart's Barbazza said the retailer is continuing to explore different reusable bag programs, including ones placed in stores.

She also said she's confident Canada's food banks will make good use of the bags.

"There's definitely a need for sturdy items to distribute materials to the food bank clients."

The paper problem

Among Canada's major grocers, only Walmart offers a reusable bag program for all customers.

Loblaw recently switched from reusable to recyclable paper bags for grocery delivery. Sobeys did not respond to requests for comment, but according to its website, the grocer also uses paper bags and "reusable options" for home delivery.

Several environmental experts say paper bags aren't a good solution, because their production leaves a sizable carbon footprint.

"Paper bags are a problem," Alfred said. "It takes a lot of energy to recycle paper, takes a lot of trees and energy to make new paper."

Loblaw said it continues to explore a variety of more sustainable solutions. "It's a challenge we're committed to addressing," spokesperson Dave Bauer said in an email.

Emily Alfred holding two reusable bags.
Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner with Toronto Environmental Alliance, says sending reusable bags to charity is just passing on the problem to someone else and that paper bags aren't a solution. (Sophia Harris/CBC)

Both Walker and Alfred applaud Metro for its grocery delivery program, because the grocer, which operates in Ontario and Quebec, reuses delivery materials.

Metro said customers can get their goods delivered in a cardboard box or reusable bags, which can be returned and used for another delivery. Or customers can opt for a plastic bin and remove their groceries from it upon arrival.

Metro does not offer similar programs for in-store shoppers.

Alfred said the federal government should introduce regulations that mandate retailers adopt effective reusable bag programs for all customers.

"It's up to our governments and people to demand that these companies do better," she said.

But Walker suggested that the regulations would be hard to enforce and that incentives could be a better tactic.

For example, if retailers increased the price of reusable bags, shoppers might be less likely to forget them when they head to the store, he said.

"When the cost is a disincentive to do an activity, people change their behaviour."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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