British Columbia

Reusable bags slowly return to B.C. stores as plastic ones used during pandemic pile up

Provincial officials lifted guidelines advising against reusable bags seven weeks ago, but some stores and shoppers have yet to return to the bring-your-own-bag routine. 

Recycle B.C. says most depots open and able to accept plastic bags for recycling

Provincial health guidelines issued in B.C. on March 29 advised stores to use only single-use bags instead of allowing customers to use their own bags from home. (Adnan Abidi/REUTERS)

One of the unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was the sudden pause imposed on the increasingly widespread acceptance and usage of reusable bags.

But as some stores across B.C. are once again allowing shoppers to use their own bags to pack their groceries, returning to a habit many had before the height of the pandemic has been slow.

Provincial officials lifted guidelines advising against reusable bags seven weeks ago, but some stores and shoppers have yet to return to the bring-your-own-bag routine. 

For people who study the impact of plastic on the environment, the initial move to ban reusable bags in late March came as a blow — even if there was agreement with the reasoning. 

"Even before COVID … we were really worried about the amount of plastic that goes into the ocean," said Rashid Sumaila, a Canada Research Chair and director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at UBC.

Several studies show that single-use plastics — like bags, bottles and food containers — are ending up in the ocean in alarming amounts and creating a hazard for marine animals.

Around 20 municipalities in B.C. have been pursuing a ban on single-use plastic bags in order to keep them out of landfills, but much of that work has been put on hold as the pandemic plays out.

On March 29, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recommended that single-use bags be used at stores and that customers should not use their own containers, reusable bags or boxes.

Most stores complied and provided single-use plastic bags for free — including stores that charged a fee for plastic bags before the pandemic to encourage people to bring reusable alternatives.

Rhiannon Moore, the City of Victoria's zero-waste coordinator, said some shoppers circumvented the guidelines by putting their groceries back in a shopping cart and wheeled that out to their car to load goods into their own bags there.

On April 25, the Ministry of Health changed its guidelines around reusable bags, saying they were fine as long as they weren't placed on countertops. 

Some stores have decided to stick with single-use plastic bags only, such as London Drugs and Save-On-Foods.

"London Drugs is still not allowing reusable bags in the stores due to health and safety concerns due to COVID-19," said Raman Johal, a sustainability specialist with the company.

On June 1, B.C. Liquor Stores lifted its ban on reusable bags, allowing customers to bring their own bags as long as they pack their own purchases and don't allow the bag to come into contact with the check-out counter.

Viviana Zanocco, who speaks for the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB), says the practise will limit contamination with employees and customers.

"The LDB's top priority is to protect those most vulnerable, employees, customers and the public, all while working toward its commitment toward sustainability," she said.

Plastic bag pile

Recycle B.C., which manages residential package and paper recycling in B.C., says it does not yet have data to indicate where all the extra plastic bags used so far during the pandemic have ended up.

Some places, such as London Drugs, which collects them for recycling, have suspended the service during the pandemic.

David Lefebvre, who speaks for Recycle B.C., said there are 215 depots around the province still accepting things like single-use plastic bags or flexible plastic packaging such as Ziploc bags or chip bags.

Recycle B.C. is encouraging people to store materials at home, such as rolling up plastic bags into tight bundles, if it isn't convenient to take them to a depot.

"Luckily, in the case of plastic bags, you can store a large number in a very small space by using one bag to collect many and then bringing these to the depot if it is open or when it reopens," he said.

Recycle B.C. also advises using the plastic bags from stores as garbage bags.