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End of an era for Sobeys single-use plastic bags

Groceries packed in a plastic bag wait in a shopping cart at the Windsor Street Sobeys on Thursday, January 16, 2020.
Groceries packed in a plastic bag wait in a shopping cart at the Windsor Street Sobeys on Thursday. - Tim Krochak

A sea change is about to be realized in Sobeys stores across the country, when the Stellarton-based grocer eliminates single-use plastic bags from checkouts at the end of January.

That's 255 locations across Canada, from Newfoundland to British Columbia.

"The change will take 225 million plastic bags out of our stores annually," Sobeys spokeswoman Violet MacLeod said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "And that's actually enough to wrap around the Earth two times, which is an interesting fact. So, it's not insignificant."

Customers are instead being encouraged to go for reusable bags they already have or purchase a new one at the till for 99 cents. A smaller reusable bag is being introduced for 25 cents and there's also the option of paper bags for 10 cents each, sourced from mills that are certified to use responsibly managed forestry production processes.

MacLeod said in Prince Edward Island, which has had a single-use plastic bag ban in place since July 1, more than 90 per cent of Sobeys customers have embraced the reusable bags at the checkout.

Other store banners under the Sobeys parent Empire Company, including IGA, Foodland, Safeway and Co-op, will phase in the ban "as we kind of see customers' sentiment, how we can responsibly grow it, but they will also be switching over at some point," MacLeod said.

Sobeys was already tracking toward this when Nova Scotia decided to implement legislation to ban single-use plastic bag sales at checkouts, which will come into effect on Oct. 30, 2020.

Newfoundland and Labrador also will institute a ban on single-use plastic bags this year.

MacLeod said Sobeys stores will continue to accept plastic bags for the company's recycling program.

"We are keeping those bins, at least for now, and for the foreseeable future as well. There's no end date to remove those."

Since announcing the decision in July, the company has continued to explore and test out options to further reduce plastics. At their IGA-bannered stores in Quebec, they're testing allowing customers to bring their own containers to fill at the hot food, deli or produce sections instead of in-store packaging. There's also a Foodland store in Ontario that has gone totally plastic-free, including cutlery, she said.

They're also looking for solutions to the thin plastic bags offered in the produce section. They will continue to be offered for now but one option being explored is a reusable produce bag made from recycled water bottles.

"And you can use those to put your produce or bakery items in, instead," she said. "We launched those in July and we were still looking for other options. They're one option that's already in store. We've also brought in our suppliers, especially in fresh produce, two times already, and brought them all together to start talking about ways that they can also help us and work together to eliminate packaging and plastic across our store, but in produce specifically."

MacLeod said the reusable bags Sobeys sells will need to be used around 39 times for it to become net-zero for carbon footprint.

"So that's why we're pushing that reuse, because the more pieces that we reuse, the more sustainable the option," she said. "It does start to out-weigh the other ones. And at the end of the day, we'll support customers if they come up with a better option. We (have) open ears, happy to find even more sustainable options if they come up in the future.

"I think the biggest piece is that we know that eliminating plastic checkout bags is one small thing in the bigger narrative of sustainability. It's a little piece but we are happy to take on that little piece and grow it and expand it and there's going to be more changes if people keep their eyes on our shelves, they're just going to see things continue in this direction. We're really committed to reducing avoidable plastic within the grocery retail space."

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