Grocery chains examine business responses to reducing use of disposable bags

A government-business initiative to reduce the use of plastic bags puts pressure on retailers to go green with their packaging, says an industry spokesman.

Sobeys cashier Casey Mason bags a customers groceries using bags supplied by the customer at the north hill store on Tuesday.

Sobeys cashier Casey Mason bags a customers groceries using bags supplied by the customer at the north hill store on Tuesday.

A government-business initiative to reduce the use of plastic bags puts pressure on retailers to go green with their packaging, says an industry spokesman.

Peter Pilarski, Alberta director of the Retail Council of Canada, said that while it’s up to each business to decide how to reduce its plastic bag usage, the industry is nonetheless accountable because it has to report its progress to the public.

“I think you’ll find retailers coming out with various strategies over the coming years, based on what works for their business models,” said Pilarski, whose group represents about 6,500 storefronts in the province.

“I talked to (a) retailer the other day and they were talking about maybe having preferential parking for people that use reusable bags.”

Last week, the province announced an agreement between major retail associations to implement strategies to — by 2013 — reduce by half the 900 million plastic bags used in Alberta in 2008.

The three other organizations that signed up on the voluntary agreement were the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers and the Canadian Association of Chain Drug Stores, which with Pilarski’s group represent 90 per cent of Alberta’s retail sales.

John Harris said a lot more customers come into his store, the Village Mall Sobeys, with their own previously-used bags than they used to.

“I mean you definitely see it because it takes the cashiers more time to bag through these (fabric bags) than they would through the regular bags,” said the store’s assistant manager.

At the front of the store, Harris set up a large display promoting Bags For Life. These are the reusable fabric bags sold by Sobeys for 99 cents or given free with a certain purchase of groceries, and replaced free of charge if damaged.

“In our training video, everybody goes through orientation, and they have an ‘eight is great.’ Everybody tries to get eight items per bag, and that’s to try to cut down (on bag usage),” Harris said.

Sobeys has set its own targets in bag reduction, namely to use half the plastic bags in 2012 they used a few years ago. They’ve already hit the 25 per cent mark, said Western region spokesman Michael Lupien. He also said the company is rolling out an educational program for employees and customers this summer that focuses on reducing bag usage.

Betty Kellsey, public affairs manager for Alberta for Canada Safeway, said that people have to remember that plastic bags still fill an important role, and that Safeway cashiers are instructed to make safety their top priority.

“Even though we’re all moving towards the path of bag reduction and at some point perhaps a bag-less society, there will always be a space or a need or necessity for plastic bags for items such as ground beef, health and beauty items like shampoos, that can leak,” said Kellsey.

Safeway has its own bag reduction strategies, including offering reusable bags.

The benefit of the government-business agreement is that it offers employees the opportunity to refocus on the issue, to make sure their reusable bags are in stock and to thank customers so they feel like they’re doing their part, said Kellsey.

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