When the first wave of COVID-19 hit different provinces across Canada, retailers, in particular grocery stores, scrambled to follow public health guidelines to make their stores as safe as possible.
Part of that response included the resurgence of disposable plastic bags.
In Nova Scotia, some grocery retailers prohibited some customers from bringing in reusable cloth bags. Jim Cormier with the Retail Council of Canada says the goal of that decision was to make customers feel safe.
“Not all of them (grocer retailers) brought back single-use plastics but a lot of them did, just to ensure that there was an alternative there if customers were uncomfortable with using reusable bags during the course of the pandemic,” Cormier said.
Cormier says Health Canada didn’t mandate any decisions concerning whether reusable bags should be temporarily banned during the pandemic.
“It was individual retailers making those decisions. Here in Nova Scotia, there’s one very large grocery retailer that did not allow reusable bags during the course of the pandemic, whereas the other one did,” he said.
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases control expert, says there isn’t a lot of evidence around whether one form of bag is less likely to spread the virus than the other.
“It was a reasonable approach (banning reusable bags) through the peak of the pandemic in case people were not washing their hands and avoiding face touching. As we head into a time with less virus, it will be important to re-evaluate if we need to continue avoiding the use of reusable bags,” Dr. Barrett said.
Nova Scotia is still moving forward with banning single-use plastic bags across the province at the end of October.
The move to ban single-use plastic is part of a large scale effort to minimize the negative environmental impact plastic has on the planet.
The pandemic led to Newfoundland and Labrador delaying their ban date for plastic bags from July 1 to October 1.
Prince Edward Island became the first province in Canada to ban plastic bags, but during the pandemic, retailers were given the option of offering paper bags to customers if they chose to do so.
Cormier says retailers will continue to monitor public health advice one the topic of bagging groceries, while trying to keep customers safe during the pandemic.
“We’ll wait and see what happens. Retailers will be cautious with this information as it’s coming out, but they’ll make sure that, ultimately, they provide options to service the customer and beyond that, we’ll wait and see what happens with governments when it comes to some of those proposed single-use plastic bag bans,” he said.
Dartmouth Centre councillor Sam Austin says he hopes the general public recognizes that the shift towards banning single-use plastic is still paramount in responding to larger issues around climate change.
“Longer term, COVID will pass like other pandemics in history have and we will back to the crushing, all-encompassing ongoing emergency that is climate change. I’m hoping that we will back to the good old cloth reusable bags as the go-to for all our shopping needs,” he said.
Concern about plastic bags is a topic that Austin says comes up often among constituents.
He says some citizens expressed concern over the use of plastic bags still being used for garbage and other forms of waste, leading him to advance a motion that would potentially see the Halifax Regional Municipality move towards a cart-based collection program.
As of now, he says, green bins are the only cart program HRM uses and that makes the municipality a ‘real anomaly’ when compared to other jurisdictions in Canada.
“Every jurisdiction out there, if you have carts for one part of your waste stream, you generally have carts for the whole waste stream. There’s not really anyone out there, like us, where it’s just for one cart,” Austin said.
“For us it’s green carts, so we really are a bit of an outlier.”
Part of the Regional Council’s agenda for June 23 is to review the findings of a staff report that outline the pros and cons of moving towards a cart-based program and how that would work in the HRM.
Austin says the benefits of a cart-based system aren’t as environmentally-driven as people may think, because it takes a significant amount of plastic to create carts in the first place.
“The timeline before you tip over the point where the amount of plastic bag use now exceeds the cart is about 12 years, which is about the lifetime of a cart,” Austin says.
He adds that the real debate is rooted in whether a cart-based program will negatively impact whether waste gets successfully diverted from landfills, for recycling.
“The main con is the potential that we might see a drop in our diversion rates from the landfill, and from recycling because it’s easier to not sort properly when you have a cart to hide things in,” he said.
He says any decision on a cart-based program is several years away and will require input from the provincial government.