When Walmart banned single-use plastic checkout bags in April, customer Larry Grant applauded the move — until he found himself drowning in reusable bags.
Each week, Grant orders Walmart groceries for pickup at a depot near his home in Toronto. Due to the plastic bag ban, the retailer now packs his items in reusable bags — new ones for each order.
Grant estimates he has acquired about 300 over the past six months.
“It’s a bit crazy,” he said, pointing to a large pile of blue Walmart bags stuffed in the trunk of his car. “In a month, I can be accumulating anywhere from 40 to 50.”
Single-use plastic shopping bags are on their way out 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 nation-wide.
But the well-intentioned war on plastic bags has had an unintended consequence: As a growing number of retailers eliminate them, some shoppers are amassing piles of reusable bags — more than they could ever reuse.
CBC News interviewed several Walmart grocery delivery customers who said that they’re swimming in reusable bags and that the retailer has simply replaced one environmental problem with another.
“Banning the plastic bags was a great move, but it wasn’t thought through,” Grant said. On this day, the weekly groceries for his family of four were delivered in eight reusable Walmart bags. Two of the bags each contained just one item.
“I’m really frustrated,” he said. “I just hope they will think about this failure … and come up with a solution.
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Why you need to reuse your reusable bag
When Walmart announced its plastic bag ban, the U.S.-based company said it was a win for the environment. The bags are problematic because they’re often difficult and costly to recycle. As a result, most end up in landfills or as litter that can enter waterways and harm marine life that mistakenly eat them.
Reusable bags are typically a better alternative — if they earn their keep. Several studies have found the bags must be used a number of times 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 relative to a single-use plastic bag,” said Cal Lakhan, a research scientist with the faculty of environmental and urban change at York University in Toronto.
“It tends to be durable and have significantly higher quality, but that higher quality comes at a cost.”
A 2020 United Nations study suggested that in order for it to have less impact on the environment than a single-use plastic bag, a cotton bag needs to be used 50 to 150 times, while a durable, non-woven polypropylene bag (such as the blue Walmart one) must be used 10 to 20 times.
“Just because something is reusable doesn’t necessarily make it good for the environment,” Lakhan said. “While I understand and appreciate the effort to try to minimize single-use plastics, we have to be very prudent in how we choose to do so.”
What’s the solution?
Udi and Natalie Sela of Maple, Ont., north of Toronto, recently went through their stockpile of reusable Walmart bags, creating a sea of blue in their living room. The couple order groceries weekly from the retailer and estimate that, like Grant, they’ve received about 300 so far.
In October, Udi Sela complained to Walmart about the reusable bag problem. He’s still waiting for a fix.
“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 of doing this.”
In an email, Walmart Canada said it’s exploring ways to cut down on the number of reusable bags in circulation, such as looking at alternatives to reusable bags for grocery delivery.
“We’re continuing to learn and adjust alongside our customers,” company spokesperson Stephanie Fusco said in an email.
She did not provide data on how many customers use Walmart’s delivery service but said it’s available in most parts of Canada.
Metro, which operates in Ontario and Quebec, told CBC News it has already found a solution. The grocer, which has also banned plastic bags, said it uses no bags for grocery delivery. Instead, goods are delivered in a returnable cardboard box or plastic bin. Customers choosing the bin option must collect their goods from it upon arrival.
Loblaw Companies Ltd. — which operates such grocery stores as Loblaws, Zehrs, No Frills and Real Canadian Superstore — plans to implement a national plastic bag ban early next year. The grocer said it’s exploring sustainable options for grocery delivery, including a program where customers can return their reusable bags.
Loblaw did not answer questions about its delivery method for provinces that have already introduced a plastic bag ban.
Sobeys also did not offer details about its grocery delivery system, but CBC News found the information on its 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 can actually be worse for the environment than single-use plastic bags.
“Cutting down forest stock, processing, pulping, forming it 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 per cent recycled paper. The company also said it will soon shift to using paper bags for grocery delivery in Ontario.
More retailers will be searching for alternatives when, on Tuesday, the federal government bans the manufacture and import of several single-use plastics, including checkout bags. One year later, it will outlaw their sale in Canada.
To ensure Canadians don’t amass too many reusable bags, Environment and Climate Change Canada said in an email that it will work with stakeholders to educate consumers on the merits of reusing them.
The department did not mention any measures focused on retailers.
A recent single-use plastic and paper ban in New Jersey led to numerous complaints that grocery delivery customers were amassing too many reusable bags. The state is now considering remedies, such as requiring delivery services to establish programs to reuse or recycle customers’ unwanted bags.