From reusable bags to 'zero waste,' grocery stores try to go green

When you head to your local grocery store, you might bring your own bags. But some stores across Canada are encouraging shoppers to go beyond the reusable bag and eliminate packaging waste entirely by bringing their own containers, from Mason jars to Tupperware.

'Bring your own container' initiatives a growing trend in trying to cut back on packaging waste

Salt Spring Island's Green is one of the first zero-waste grocery stores in Canada. Many grocery stores are now trying to reduce food packaging waste by encouraging customers to bring containers, from reusable bags to Mason jars. (Green/Facebook)

When you head to your local grocery store, you might bring your own bags. In most municipalities, plastic bags are usually an option if you forget.

But some stores across Canada are eliminating that option entirely and encouraging shoppers to go beyond the reusable bag and eliminate packaging waste entirely by bringing their own containers, from Mason jars to Tupperware.

How are stores avoiding packaging?

Shoppers at Vancouver's Zero Waste Market can find most of their grocery staples. What they won't find is plastic packaging.

"The idea is that people can bring in any container that they have on hand," Brianne Miller told CBC in a March 2016 interview.

She's the founder of Zero Waste Market, which she calls a "100 per cent package-free grocery store," encouraging customers to bring just about any alternative to single-use plastic bags to cart home their groceries.

Vancouver's Zero Waste Market is a '100 per cent package-free' grocery store, founder Brianne Miller says. (Zero Waste Market/Facebook)
"It could be a Ziploc bag that they've used 10 times in a row, it could be a Tupperware container, it could be a Mason jar or a cloth bag. We're open to anything as long as it's clean."

There are, of course, some limits to that approach. The store doesn't offer meat at this point, for example.

But the idea of cutting back on food packaging is one Canadians are seeing coast-to-coast.

On Salt Spring Island in B.C., there's a zero-waste grocery store simply called Green. In Montreal, there's Méga Vrac and Loco, both zero-waste grocery stores.

And Bulk Barn is piloting a "bring your own mason jar" program at one Toronto location. If it goes well, the chain hopes to roll out something similar in other Canadian locations.

A Toronto Bulk Barn location is piloting a reusable container program. (Bulk Barn)

Why are stores going 'zero waste'?

It seems to be an extension of the push in recent years toward reusable grocery bags in place of plastic bags — which historically, Canadians have used a lot.

A 2008 parliamentary report said we take home 2.68 billion plastic bags every year, and said "their sheer numbers are cause for concern."

The report also noted many of those bags "are discarded and become litter that has a damaging impact on ecosystems, habitats and wildlife."

Mike Von Massow, an associate professor in the department of food, agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph, said plastic-free is definitely a growing trend at grocery stores in Canada.

Mike Von Massow of the University of Guelph says a push toward reusable containers is encouraging. (University of Guelph)
"We're seeing more and more people go to bags or bins that they can carry," he said.

"Most grocery stores continue to offer bags as an option, except in those jurisdictions that have said 'no more bags.' And we're starting to hear that more and more."

As Von Massow points out, some municipalities have taken measures to ban plastic bags altogether. Leaf Rapids, Man., was the first in Canada to do so in 2007.

Earlier this year, Montreal announced a plastic bag ban to come into effect in 2018. And on Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador, retailers have opted for a self-imposed ban — an approach supported by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which opposes legislated bans.

What are the drawbacks?

Von Massow said we have to be careful about assuming we're reducing huge amounts of waste with initiatives like plastic bag bans and a move to reusable bags.

"It does mean we buy more garbage bags," he said.

"There [are] some cases where we used to use the grocery bags for garbage. Now we're buying garbage bags for garbage. So it's not always as clearcut as we think it is."

While Mike Von Massow considers a move away from plastic grocery bags a positive, it may have unintended effects, such as encouraging the purchase of garbage bags. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
Another factor to consider with "bring your own container" initiatives is food safety, he said.

"It is bulk product that lends itself well to bringing your own packaging," he said.

"I don't think we're on the cusp, for example, of seeing buckets of mayonnaise in our grocery store and spooning that into our Mason jars."

What's the future for zero-waste shopping?

Von Massow said the early adopters we're seeing could be the beginning of a bigger change.

"We have to walk before we run, and right now we are doing it in markets where we have a receptive audience who is particularly open to doing the reusable container," he said.

"Once we sort of find out that it works, we can then offer it to a broader audience."

Meanwhile, Zero Waste Market's Brianne Miller told CBC she'd like to see her store expand its no-packaging options.

"Things like yogurt, that usually come in pre-sealed containers, is something we're working on. Bulk liquids as well," she said.

"But things like honey and maple syrup are things that you can't really get in bulk right now and so it's products like that that we're hoping to make more accessible."


Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.