Nfld. & Labrador

Paper or plastic? Grocery stores have different pandemic approaches

Here's what you need to know about what different stores are doing about bagging groceries.

COVID-19 has caused some confusion at the checkout

The Plastic Bag Reduction Act came into effect July 1, 2019, and has since reduced the number of single-use plastic bags in recycling and waste down to almost zero. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)
Sobeys is promoting this five-step process for cleaning reusable bags. (Sobeys)

For many self-isolating during the COVID-19 global pandemic, the grocery store may be their only escape from the house. What you put your groceries in, however, varies on where you decide to shop. 

Health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador say only one member of a household should go out for groceries. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, also recommends just one grocery shop per week. 

But there are no further guidelines for retailers on how customers' purchases should be bagged up, and it's not clear which container poses the least risk. 

What do the experts say?

Recently on CBC's The National, Dr. Lynora Saxsinger said confusion over the safest way to haul goods home has some people upset.

"I think part of it is because there was a study suggesting that the virus is still viable on plastic after about 72 hours," the infectious disease specialist with the University of Alberta said. That study was published by the New England Journal of Medicine on March 17.

Saxsinger didn't offer an opinion on reusable bags, but said they should be washed often. 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, each company has its own take on best practice. Here's what CBC found. 


With 13 stores in the province, the grocer made headlines when it decided to ban plastic bags earlier this year.

The store is holding fast to that policy, even after the pandemic swept into Newfoundland and Labrador in March. Shoppers are allowed to bring in their reusable bags and are required to pack them up on their own, without help from a cashier.

"We're in constant contact with local health authorities for guidance and to date we have not received direction to stop using reusable bags," a Sobeys spokesperson said via email.

"If their direction changes, so will ours."

The company also sells paper bags at the checkout. 


Meanwhile, Loblaw-owned Dominion operates 11 stores, and shoppers won't find reusable bags in many of them.

During the coronavirus pandemic, stores in St. John's are asking shoppers to leave their own bags at home. 

"We can't guarantee that everyone's personal bags have been properly sanitized which could pose a risk to our colleagues and customers," Mark Boudreau, director of corporate affairs for Atlantic Canada said in an email.

"To help mitigate any inconvenience, we have temporarily waived the fee for plastic bags."


The locally owned and operated grocer operates 12 Colemans stores and the lone Belbin's store on Quidi Vidi Road.

Greg Gill, vice-president of marketing, told CBC that all bags are welcomed in its stores. 

"Staff have been instructed to advise customers that staff will not handle bags that come into the store with customers as a safety precaution," said Gill. 

Workers will pack your groceries if you are using Colemans' own plastic bags.


With 11 stores on the island and one in Labrador City, the retail giant recently added groceries to its offerings. 

It's taking the same approach as Colemans in its stores in and around St. John's.

"[Walmart is] currently offering free plastic shopping bags and to minimize touch at the full-service checkouts," Walmart Canada's manager of corporate affairs, Felicia Fefer, said in a statement.

"Our cashiers are asking customers if they would like to bag their purchases in the bags provided. Customers shopping with reusable bags are required to bag their own purchases."

Wash your hands

Regardless of where customers choose to shop, Saxsinger has a word of general advice.

"People should pay attention to what they're doing with their belongings and where they've been before assuming things carry risk," Saxsinger said.

"Anything you carry that might have virus contamination — you can get rid of your risk by washing your hands thoroughly after you touch things."

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