Let's bring back the reusable grocery bag

Published Tuesday, February 4, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

The cashier scanned my first item and put it into a plastic bag.  

“No need for a bag,” I said.  “I have one.”

She spun back toward me.  “What?”

“I have a cloth bag,” I held it up.  Seeing her reaction, I added, “Is that unusual?”

“Yes,” she stammered, “Actually, it is.”

Sadly, this is a true story.  It took place last week in a major grocery store in a larger NB community, where reusable bags have apparently become rarities.

Full circle

Oh, how far we’ve come.  Not long ago, it looked like the end was near for the plastic bag.  Reusable bags, with their eco-messages and soothing images, were everywhere.  It was almost to the point where people still using plastic had to cast their eyes down as they slunk from the checkout to the refuge of their vehicles.

But good intentions seem to have gone the way of many New Year’s resolutions, and we’ve backslid into old, easy habits.  Do your own quick survey at the average store, as I periodically do, and you’ll likely find that 80 to 100 percent of shoppers don’t use reusable bags.  Sadly, it would seem they’ve become a rarity in New Brunswick.

The problem with plastic

Plastic grocery bags are themselves not the problem.  Most are made of #4 plastic, which can be recycled.  

The problem is that they typically aren’t recycled; they’re trashed, and we just get more the next time we shop.  Most Canadians tell Statistics Canada they use reusable bags, but there’s clearly a disconnect between what we do and what we think we do.  Perhaps a statistic from the US is more telling: there, only 6% of #4 plastic is recycled.

That means we’re putting perfectly good plastic into our landfills, and then using precious fossil fuels to create more.  

It also means we’re creating an environmental problem with a very long legacy.  Plastic bags that escape from garbage trucks or vehicle windows often blow into rivers and flow into oceans, where they persist for a very, very long time. 

And one more thing.  Plastic bags cost money, which is included in the price of the products we buy.  When plastic bags are free, those of us who don’t use any are essentially paying for the bags of those who do.  Doesn’t seem right to me.

False starts

A logical solution would be putting a price on plastic bags, so that those who use them pay for them; I'm glad to report that my local Co-op does that.  California is set to go a step further, banning single use plastic bags and mandating a 10 cent fee on all other bags.

But pricing bags is apparently not as simple as it sounds.  On Earth Day 2009, the Atlantic Superstore started charging a nickel for bags – and then beat a hasty retreat eight months later in response to apparent customer outrage.  Over a nickel, or 1/34th the price of a medium double-double.

In June 2009, NB Liquor started charging five cents for bags, with all proceeds going to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.  Again, apparently customers who readily paid dollars for booze had problems paying pennies for bags, and the fee was dropped in 2012.

Perhaps the shame in these reversals lies not with Superstore and NB Liquor, but with those who had the audacity to complain about paying for what they use.  And perhaps it lies with all the other retailers that lacked the courage to charge for bags.  Together, they could have transformed the market.

Full circle, again

So what to do?  (In the larger picture of environmental challenges we face, reducing plastic waste probably ranks among the simpler problems to solve.  I often find myself worrying about how we will solve the larger problems if we can't solve the smaller ones.)

If you have reusable bags, please dig them out again.  If you don’t have any, please get some.  

If you use reusable bags, why not tell retailers – and perhaps politicians – that you don’t like paying for everyone else’s bags.

If you want to continue using plastic, please recycle.  And when some brave corporation shows leadership and starts charging for bags, please, please, please don’t gripe about a miserly nickel.