As Walmart drops plastic shopping bags, advocates push for broader retail waste reduction

As Walmart Canada gets set to remove single-use plastic shopping bags from its stores, environmental advocates say more needs to be done to reduce waste across the broader retail sector.

As of Friday, single-use plastic shopping bags at checkout won’t be available for customers. Instead, customers were asked to bring their own reusable bags starting at the end of the week or they’ll need to buy reusable ones from the retailer.

Company representatives said the move is expected to prevent the annual use of 680 million plastic bags, weighing around 10.5 million pounds, annually.

“Our goal is to reduce unnecessary plastic,” Rob Nicol, the vice-president of corporate affairs for Walmart Canada, told CityNews in an interview Monday afternoon.

Despite the move, it doesn’t mean plastic is gone totally. Clear bags used for bulk items (e.g. nuts, candy, flour etc.) and produce as well as items packaged through industrial processing will still be available for now.

“It actually protects a lot of food in particular and it allows the food to be sold over a longer period of time and in a safer way,” Nicol said, referencing the use of plastics in certain instances.

Dr. Calvin Lakhan, the co-investigator of the Waste Wiki project at York University — an initiative that promotes waste management research, called Walmart Canada’s policy “well-intentioned.”

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“It ultimately comes down to how people use reusable bags, so the resource [intensity] is significantly more than trying to make one single plastic bag,” he said.

In order to make a difference, he said consumers need to embrace the use of reusable bags and there needs to be wider adoption of the bags — pointing to past studies showing people forget those.

Lakhan said reducing the amount we consume should be a broader goal. He said plastics still have a role to play, noting not all are equal and can be beneficial in certain instances — especially for pre-packaged products consumed in lower-income households and when plastics can be “light-weighted.”

“The proliferation of plastic packaging is symptomatic of broken food systems and broken consumption systems,” Lakhan said.

“We can’t paint all plastic packaging with the same brush. I think we need to have a much more nuanced discussion and identify where does plastic make sense, where doesn’t it make sense and where is the opportunity to switch to a much more sustainable alternative in the near term.”

He said Canada “is not on the right path” and that governments need to step back and look at the total economic and environmental factors along with environmental science to better achieve sustainability versus just boosting recycling efforts.

“I think the government needs to do their due diligence and actually say, ‘You know what does this make sense from a lifecycle perspective?’ and not just presume a ban on single-use plastics will achieve a better environmental outcome,” Lakhan said.

“Increasing recycled content of consumer-based packaging is technically impossible given the properties of the plastic itself.”

Karen Wirsig, the plastics program manager at Environmental Defence, called Walmart Canada’s decision “good news” and said it comes ahead of a potential federal ban on single-use plastics. She said the federal goal is to get to zero-plastic waste by 2030, but noted there is still a lack of specifics on how to do that.

“Plastic bags are an enormous source of waste across Canada,” Wirsig said.

“We do need to produce less of it and use less of it. I mean this is not something we as individual consumers are going to fix on our own.”

Wirsig highlighted information gathered by Statistics Canada, which found all residents threw out 4.4 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018 and roughly 50 per cent of that was plastic packaging.

When it comes to those 2.2 million tonnes of discarded plastics, 1.9 million were incinerated or taken to landfills in 2018 (600,000 tonnes from Ontario) while 26,000 tonnes were estimated to be littered at large.

The push to reduce waste in commercial businesses is one that has been ongoing for years. In addition to stopping the use of single-use plastic bags, single-use items in food operations have also been targeted.

A report by the Toronto Environmental Alliance and the University of Toronto Trash Team based on interviews with 12 small businesses in 2021 found there was interest in shifting to reusable food containers, but also a need by governments to provide more education and public health-related guidance.

“This is really going in the right direction of encouraging customers to use more reusables. But of course this strategy can not only prohibit single-use, but shift us to the right alternatives to reusable alternatives and we need to think about the circular economy,” Rafaela Gutierrez, a program lead with the University of Toronto Trash Team, told CityNews.

“The data from Environment and Climate Change Canada (shows) almost 50 per cent of the plastic waste generated is single-use packaging, so we have a lots to do in terms of reducing single-use plastic.”

The City of Toronto staff recently conducted public consultations as part of the municipality’s waste reduction strategy. Officials are looking at potential mandatory initiatives such as charging fees for single-use items and requiring the acceptance of reusable containers when customers ask. A report with recommendations will be presented to Toronto city council at a later date.

In 2019, the Trudeau government announced the intention to ban single-use plastics. At the time officials said it could happen as soon as 2021, but a ban on plastic bags isn’t currently in place. Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said draft regulations mean plastic bags and Styrofoam containers could be banned by the end of 2022.

Meanwhile, Nicol said Walmart Canada is also looking at changing the composition of the plastics it uses — removing the ones harder to recycle. He also said the company is looking at the greater use of renewable energy to power its stores, distribution centres and fleet of vehicles along with other changes.

“That includes reducing waste of all types and kinds, food waste and plastic waste. But it also includes ensuring that the commodities, the products we sell in our stores, are as sustainably sourced as possible,” Nicol said.

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