P.E.I. prepares for new rules on plastic checkout bags

The countdown is on for Island businesses and consumers preparing for new rules around single-use plastic checkout bags. As of July 1st, P.E.I. will become the first province in Canada to ban them.

'For the first six months, the goal is to work with the business community and with the public '

Hughes has been travelling the Island, speaking to residents and businesses, in anticipation of the new rules. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Prince Edward Island businesses and consumers are getting set for the ban on plastic checkout bags that takes effect on July 1.

P.E.I. will become the first province in Canada to ban the single-use bags, under the Plastic Bag Reduction Act.

"I was up along the North Shore in the resort area last week and I was pleasantly surprised with how the business community up there has been making the adjustment," said John Hughes, with the Department of Environment, Water and Climate Change.

"It's quite a change for our Island owned and operated businesses to make, we've been doing plastic bags for 40 years."

Hughes has been travelling the Island, speaking to residents and businesses, in anticipation of the new rules.

John Hughes, from P.E.I.'s Environment Department, prepares to show a group from the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce what kinds of paper and reusable bags will be acceptable for sale come July 1. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

He said he has heard some concerns from the business community.

"They're concerned with how long is it going to take them to use up their existing supply of bags," Hughes said.

"Are they able to find a satisfactory supply of paper bags and reusable alternatives? Because this is really about promoting the reusable bags."

Education not enforcement

Hughes said the intent of the legislation is not to have 30 million paper bags replacing 30 million plastic bags, but to encourage Islanders to find ways to reuse bags, or eliminate them entirely.

"It can be a bit of a challenge because we've been using plastic for so long now," Hughes said. 

"The infrastructure to supply paper and reusable bags has to be built up again."

John Hughes, of the P.E.I. Department of Environment, has been fielding questions from businesses across the Island. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Hughes said the first six months will be about education, not enforcement.

"To allow the businesses to train their staff, acquire alternatives in the way of paper or reusable bags," Hughes said.

"The goal is to work with the business community and with the public to implement this in the best way possible."

In 2020, individuals breaching the act can face fines between $50 and $500. Businesses could be fined as much as $10,000.

Consultation in September

Hughes said the department is planning a month-long consultation with the business community in September, asking for feedback on how the process is going, and any changes that might be needed.

The Department of Environment has created a Bring Your Own Bag campaign, to help prepare consumers for the new rules. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Hughes said enforcement of the Plastic Bag Reduction Act will be done by the Department of Justice.

"But from what I'm seeing in the response from the business community, I don't think we have to worry about fines," Hughes said.

"The businesses appear to be sincerely trying to comply with the act."

Retailers on P.E.I. have been shopping around for options to replace their plastic checkout bags. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Hughes said most of the businesses he's been talking to will have some inventory left over on July 1.

"They're allowed to use up those plastic bags before they start using all of the other bags, so I think there will be a period where the business community is going through the transition," Hughes said. 

"But I suspect by the end of the transition period, by the end of this year, things will look dramatically different."

Tricky timing

Hughes admits he has heard some concerns about the change coming during the Island's busy tourism season.

"I think the retail industry and the quick-service industry would probably tell you that February is the preferred time to make any changes," Hughes said. 

"I don't hear that so much anymore and I think this is a good opportunity for the business community to implement the changes for their permanent staff as well as their seasonal staff."

As of July 1, plastic checkout bags will no longer be allowed, including ones used at quick-service restaurants. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Hughes points out that this isn't a total ban on plastic bags, but specifically with checkout bags.

"A ban implies that you're prohibiting all kinds of plastic bags, we're not saying plastic bags are bad," Hughes said.

"We're saying that the way that we were handling 30 million single-use checkout bags was not sustainable."

Islanders are preparing

Jeannie Jaeger keeps a supply of reusable bags in her car and said she is pleased about the new rules.

"I think they're definitely important, we lived for ages with paper bags anyway," Jaeger said.

"I don't think it should be too much of a problem, if anything, it's definitely a benefit."

As of July 1, the PEILCC will be charging 15 cents for a paper bag. It also sells reuseable bags — a wine bag and beer bag. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Jaeger also has no issue with paying 15 cents for a paper bag or $1 for a reusable bag.

"I think that it's a valid investment and I think it makes perfect sense for where we are right now as a society."

Hughes says the intent of the legislation is to encourage Prince Edward Islanders to find ways to reuse bags, or eliminate them entirely. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Jonathan Pinette, of Mermaid, thinks some Islanders will be concerned about paying for bags.

"It's going to be a tough transition for some people because they don't want to buy bags," Pinette said.

"There's going to be some angry people ... but I feel that the most Islanders will appreciate this change." 

The act is designed, in part, to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up scattered across the Island landscape. (John Gaudi/CBC )

Eleanor Birt has mixed feelings around the coming change.

"It frightens me a little bit because we're so used to plastic and it's so convenient but I am in agreement with what they're trying to do," Birt said.

"I think it'll just be a big learning curve and I don't know what I'm going to do without plastic bags because they are useful."

Some P.E.I. shoppers say they are going to miss the plastic bags because of their convenience. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Molly Chandler, who lives in Pownal, tries not to use bags, even reusable ones, if she doesn't have to.

"We have a bunch of them at home right now," Chandler said. 

"But we usually just have a basket in the trunk of the car that we'll just take into the store and fill it up with our groceries."

Prince Edward Islanders currently use about 30 million single-use plastic checkout bags every year. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

She thinks most Islanders are ready for the new rules.

"They should be," Chandler said. "We've been preparing for it for a long time haven't we?"

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Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.