Sobeys becomes the first national grocer to ban plastic bags

Score one for the anti-plastics movement. Sobeys Inc. has become the first national grocery chain to pledge to eliminate the use of plastic bags. The retail giant announced this week that it plans to remove all plastic bags from its 255 locations across Canada by the end of January 2020, a move that will take 225 million plastic grocery bags out of circulation.

The Nova Scotia-based company, which is owned by Empire Co. Ltd., also plans to soon begin phasing out plastic bags and introducing paper bags at its other outlets. All told, Sobeys owns or franchises more than 1,500 stores under various retail banners, including Safeway, Thrifty Foods, IGA, Foodland, FreshCo, Farm Boy and Lawton Drugs, as well as 350 gas stations.

Canadians go through hundreds of millions of single-use plastic bags at grocery stores each year, and the chains — many of which charge a small fee for plastic bags — have been facing pressure from increasingly eco-conscious consumers to do more to eliminate their plastic-centric packaging.

Sobeys admits that it is phasing out plastic bags in response to public feedback. “So many of our customers and our employees have told us loud and clear — they want us to use less plastic — and we agree with them,” stated Michael Medline, president and CEO of the chain’s parent, Empire Company Limited, in a news release. “We decided to act now instead of taking years to study and only make long-term commitments.”

The retailer has also committed to reduce plastic in other areas of the stores, calling it “the first step in removing unnecessary plastic from all retail.” Those steps include introducing a line of reusable mesh produce bags made from recycled water bottles to provide customers with an alternative for their fresh produce. The reusable mesh produce bags were introduced at IGA in Quebec in June and have received positive feedback from customers.

Sobeys is also partnering with the student group Enactus Canada to challenge youth to find innovative solutions to reduce the use of avoidable plastics for grocery retailers, while also encouraging behavioural change in Canadian consumers in regards to plastics.

Sobeys’ initiative may prod other grocery retailers to follow suit, which would be a welcome development. Canadians currently use about 2.86 billion plastic bags a year, and in coastal regions especially, these bags create a major environmental hazard where they persist for a long time and harm wildlife. Floating in open water, they can resemble jellyfish, posing dangers and often causing death to marine mammals and sea turtles, which may eat them by mistake.

Many countries are now introducing legislation to restrict the use of lightweight plastic bags, which can last from 10 to 20 years in the marine environment or more than 500 years in the ground. The number of plastic bags used and discarded worldwide each year has been estimated to be in the order of one trillion.

As ubiquitous as they may be, however, plastic bags actually make up only a small proportion of the total amount of plastic we use. Canada currently recycles less than 10 percent of its disposable plastics, and is on pace to throw away $11 billion worth of disposable plastic by 2030 unless things change.