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How many plastic shopping bags do we use each year? Each icon represents 10 million.
How many plastic shopping bags do we use each year? Each icon represents 10 million.

The battle of the bag Add to ...

New Delhi’s three-year attempt failed, according to the Times of India, because it was challenging to enforce the ban with smaller roadside shops. Plastic bags remained cheaper than the cloth and paper alternatives and vendors seemed unwilling to accept change.

Seattle, however, does have the city’s retailers on its side as its ban comes into effect on July 1, said Councillor Mike O’Brien, who is championing the cause.

“I don’t think retailers like waste in their system … and they were essentially giving away bags for free,” he said. “And putting a fee in one place meant customers might go elsewhere, so a city-wide ban just seemed better.”

Along with the plastic-bag ban, Seattle will also get a five-cent fee on paper bags, because “you don’t want folks to switch from one single-use bag to another non-reusable option.”

The city estimates 292 million single-use plastic bags are in circulation every year, costing it $2.5-million in waste-management expenses.

- Tamara Baluja

A mixed bag: Retailers react to Toronto’s plastic-bag ban

Toronto’s precipitous move to eliminate plastic bags from the city’s stores has angered many retailers, although not all business owners think it’s a bad idea.

Those who don’t like it were quick to label the move as hasty, damaging and unnecessary.

The ban is “ridiculous,” said Mauro Mila, vice-president of Bruno’s Fine Foods, a small up-scale grocery chain with five stores in the Toronto region.

Replacing plastic bags with paper will sharply increase costs for retailers at a time when grocery store margins are increasingly squeezed, he said. “Our costs have already gone through the roof [and we have] competition from Costco and everybody else. If they force us to get rid of a bag that we pay two cents for and replace it with a 20-cent bag. ... Do you know how many bags we go through in a week?”

On top of that, paper bags just don’t perform as well, he said. “Paper bags – if you get something damp in it, it goes right through.”

Alex Ling, owner of Ling’s Importers, a specialty store in the west end of the city, said he buys his plastic bags in bulk, and has a huge supply, so the Jan. 1 date for the ban is far too soon.

“What do I do with the ones I have stockpiled?” he said. “It’s just a waste of money.”

Shifting to paper bags is not an environmentally friendly solution, he insists, especially now that plastic bags can be recycled. And raising an issue that is on the minds of many dog owners who use plastic bags to pick up after their pets, he asked: “For people out walking their dogs, what do they do?”

Still, cutting out plastic shopping bags is not entirely unpopular, nor without precedent among Canadian retailers.

Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the country’s largest grocer, has already eliminated plastic bags at eight of its discount grocery stores in six provinces across Canada. The first to do so, in Milton, Ont., took the plunge way back in 2007.

Customers bring their own bags, or they can buy reusable ones made of recycled plastic bottles or get a refundable plastic box, said Loblaw spokeswoman Julija Hunter.

Mountain Equipment Co-op, an environmentally conscious retailer with 15 stores across Canada, eliminated single-use plastic shopping bags in 2010. Esther Speck, MEC’s director of sustainability, said the move took some customers by surprise, but the key to getting them onside was to have an affordable reusable bag available for sale. She said it would be valuable to have Toronto and other cities join in, partly because it would “create a level playing field” for MEC.

At the Sweet Potato, an independent natural food store in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, owner Digs Dorfman says he’s behind the bag ban, although he thinks the deadline is too soon and acknowledges it will take some time for customers to adjust.

The move is “a great idea,” he said. “It is what we should be doing, and … it was inevitable. There’s nothing more to it than offering a variety of reusable bags.”

People will adapt, Mr. Dorfman said. “It is just something that customers have to get used to.” It is not likely to hurt business, he said, because even if a shopper arrives without enough bags, they’ll have options. “They’ll either be forced to buy another reusable bag, carry some things by hand, or come back another time. Ultimately, it doesn’t change things that much.”

- Richard Blackwell

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