Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Breaking a Bag Habit

by Theresa Peluso

“A habit is something you can do without thinking—which is why most of us have so many of them.” (Frank A. Clark)

Many people have acquired the habit of expecting their purchases to be put in plastic bags, not realizing the harm these bags cause to the environment. In Canada alone, between 9 and 15 billion single-use plastic bags are discarded every single year. Being so light and buoyant, most of these bags escape the clutches of the garbage collector, ending up in fields, forests, rivers, and oceans, and wreaking havoc on millions of animals and their habitat over the many hundreds of years that they take to break down.

This year the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists, in support of our natural environment, implemented the Plastic Bag Reduction Project to address this problem.

You probably saw our booth at various summer festivals such as the Almonte and Pakenham fairs, Celtfest, and Herbfest, or at the Pakenham General Store, Patrice’s YIG or the Heritage Court, where our volunteers provided information to visitors about the issue, and invited them to Take the Pledge in support of not using single-use plastic shopping bags. If you’re a store owner you probably answered a short survey about your establishment’s use of plastic bags.

Thanks to the participation of all the people who stopped by our booth, and the store owners who took the time to answer our survey, our group learned a lot about the issue and got some great suggestions about how to solve this problem.

Our visitors told us how countries, like Germany, have simply outlawed plastic bags, and so they’re just not available. Some suggested that stores have a bin with used plastic bags brought in by customers for those who have forgotten their re-usable bin or bag. (This wouldn’t work, for hygiene reasons, in a store selling food.) Others recommended offering alternatives to plastic bags, such as cardboard boxes and cloth bags, and displaying them more prominently. Also, posting reminders to customers in various locations would encourage more of them to break their plastic bag habit and use cloth bags or bins. Offering discounts to people who bring their own bags or bins was another idea.

In an informal two-hour survey conducted by one of our volunteers at the local grocery store, it was observed that about 45% of customers had their purchases packed in re-usable containers or carried them unbagged. At another store in the area that sells baked goods, crafts and novelty items, the results were quite different. About 98% of customers came out with their goods in plastic bags.

A total of 244 people signed our Take the Pledge form, including people from Norway, Peterborough, New York City, Morrisburg, Stratford, Cobden, Sudbury, Windsor, and Grand Bend (Ont.).

Many of the people who passed by our booth saw our banner illustrated with a sea turtle eating a plastic bag (turtles think they’re jellyfish, which they prey on). About one-quarter of the passersby stopped to find out about the issue. A small percentage of these passersby had no idea that plastic bags were a problem for wildlife. Another small percentage had some awareness of the problem, and on hearing how harmful plastic bags were, promised to stop using them. Some people were inspired to renew their efforts to bring their own containers. Most visitors were already avid conservationists, pleased that we were publicizing the issue

Of the 23 stores surveyed in Almonte, Pakenham, and Clayton, 6 wait for the customer to ask for a plastic bag; 14 offer alternatives to plastic bags, including biodegradable bags; 7 have cloth bags for sale; 2 provide cardboard boxes; 8 provide paper bags; 2 invite customers to return plastic bags for re-use by other customers; 4 charge a fee for plastic bags; and one store on Mill Street doesn’t use any plastic bags, not even biodegradable bags. Regarding the 14 stores that answered the question about the number of plastic bags they use in a year, the total was 575,000. That’s a huge number!

Quite a few retailers also provided ideas about ways to reduce the number of plastic bags they provide, many of which were identical to those offered by the visitors to our booth. Some of these were: don’t make plastic bags available to the customer, promote cloth bags more actively, provide a box where customers can put their used plastic bags or drop off cloth bags for re-use by others, erect a flashing neon sign outside the store to remind people to bring a re-usable container, charge more for plastic bags, put up snazzy posters to remind people not to use plastic bags, and make biodegradable bags more easily available. One retailer pointed out that sometimes customers re-use plastic bags for their kitchen waste containers, so the bags do have a second use. Most of the retailers knew about the environmental harm caused by plastic bags, and most had taken action to reduce the number they handed out. Nearly all the retailers that were surveyed were keen to help with the problem of one-use plastic bags, but weren’t sure how to handle the fact that customers keep expecting to have their purchases packed in plastic bags.

A few retailers pointed out that biodegradable bags are more expensive, and because they degrade more quickly, they can’t be stored indefinitely. Several retailers were of the opinion that it’s the customer who dictates the store’s approach, and didn’t want to create a negative impression. As they prepared to answer the survey questions, a couple of retailers were shocked to realize just how much money they spend on plastic bags per year.

So, all you customers out there, for the sake of our planet, break that bag habit, and bring your own re-usable containers. Furthermore, because retailers take their cues from their customers, as we found out from our survey, you also need to speak up and speak out! Tell the managers whose stores you patronize that you support initiatives to reduce the consumption of plastic bags. Let’s work together to make our community an earth-friendly one!