On Earth Day 2009, Loblaws started charging 5 cents for disposable plastic bags. Initially, I grumbled that grocery stores have found a way to make a tidy profit on an item that costs them, perhaps, 2 cents. But, paying an extra 50 cents for plastic bags has a way of changing consumer behaviour in a hurry. I wasn’t about to allow Loblaws to continue to ding me nickels, so I threw a few reusable bags in the trunk the next time I went shopping. At the checkout, I found a less publicized side to the story: Loblaws gives a bonus of 50 PC Points (worth about 5 cents) for every reusable bag. In other words, it is not a simple rip off: Loblaws penalizes customers who use plastic bags and rewards those who ditch them. The company also says that part of the proceeds goes to environmental causes but it is possible that some of the levy falls to the bottom line.

The program is a fascinating case study in how incentives influence behaviour. Loblaws had been trying to entice customers to opt for reusable bags by offering 50 PC Points with little success. But, when a 5 cent charge was instituted, the company says customers reduced the use of plastic bags by 55%. Metro, which recently instituted a 5 cent levy, also reports a 70% reduction in disposable plastic bags. I’m not surprised – we don’t buy plastic bags at Loblaws anymore.

This article has 57 comments

  1. We’ve been reusing our bags for as long as I can remember. I’m glad such a policy has been implemented. In a short period of time its obvious the number of plastic bags has been reduced.

    The question is whether the companies will fulfill their responsibilities and direct some monies towards environmental causes – but even if they simply use this to pad their pockets the policy has been effective in reducing bags. – at least one win out of a possible two – win-win scenario.

  2. This policy does little to divert waste from our landfills. I recycled 100% of the bags I once got from the grocery stores since I used them for garbage.

    Now since I don’t get them from the grocery store I’ve started using glad kitchen waste bags instead.

    The net benefit to the environment is negligible.

  3. As a Loblaws customer, the reward was not well communicated. You had to ask for it specificly and even then not all the cashiers were aware of it.

    They force everyone to pay the five cent per bag so it will have a greater impact.

  4. D, I’m with you. In Toronto you can put your green bin stuff out in a plastic bag and they have a way to remove it from the process (this isn’t the case in many municipalities). Now that I’ve gone through my store of excess bags, I’ll have to buy bin liners. It’s also funny that I have accepted this at grocery stores but it drives me nuts not to get bags at Home Depot. Not sure what the difference is but I’ve made a distinction.

  5. I do the same as D. Instead of reusing plastic grocery bags (which are a cheaper, thinner plastic) I’m using glad bags for my garbage…..although 5 cents per bag may be less than the glad bags.

    I never bought the plastic bins because I figured you could buy 80 plastic bags for the same price ($4/.05). Now that I know there’s a 5 cent bonus, it cuts that number in half (40 bags). It may be worth it now.

  6. I think its a great idea for the mass public, just not for me 🙂 I have 2 cats and need those plastic bags dearly. I paid my 5 cents and grumbled when they introduced it.

    My question is: Why are paper bags 5 cents too? aren’t they 100% recycled and recyclable again? These should be free if the 5cents is truly a “Green Tax”!

  7. superstore (loblaws) out west has been charging 4 cents per bag for probably a decade. they’ve just been making the bag plastic thinner and thinner so now you need two.

    i see home depot and rona now charge 5 cents per bag, with proceeds going to charity-type stuff.

    for grocery shopping, we use a combination of reusable cloth bags and excess plastic bags.

  8. D: That’s not recycling, that’s reusing before disposal.

    Buying bags has been the norm in Europe for years, do we really feel a sense of entitlement as a society for them?

    Farm Boy in Ottawa which used to give you credit for bringing your own bags but not charging for bags recently halted the credit. I guess they figure the ‘free’ bags is enough of a deal.

    Also, I notice cashiers are cramming the bought bags. Probably to avoid customer complaints of using to many bags.

    For me, I’ve been bring bags for years as I get most groceries at Food Basics, and before that Valdi’s. (remember them?)

  9. Thanks for the link. The next challenge is to find other financial incentives that work as well to drive desired bahaviour.

  10. Canadian Capitalist

    @Sampson: I agree. I’m not an really into environment causes and I probably wouldn’t have bothered with a 5-cent bonus (I didn’t know about it, but I think that I would have kept forgetting to bring reusable bags) but a 5-cent penalty changed my behaviour in a hurry.

    @D: I disagree. Granted I still use plastic bags to line garbage cans but I’ll use far less now that there is a cost for bags. Actually, even with cutting back on bags at Loblaws, we still get too many bags (from Wal-Mart and Produce Depot — our local grocery store).

    @Aolis: I believe you don’t get the bonus points at the self-checkout either. It is true that sometimes you have to ask for the PC Points but at other times, the cashier gives out PC Points for every plastic bag NOT used.

    @Al: Now that you mention it, it may be a matter of time before every store starts charging for bags. Maybe, I’ll stock pile excess bags for a while.

    @Philip: Loblaws gave out coupons for a free Green bin a while back. Maybe they’ll have another promotion soon.

    @nobleea: Home Depot & Rona now charge as well? Oh boy. I better start stockpiling 🙂

  11. @Sods “Why are paper bags 5 cents too? aren’t they 100% recycled and recyclable again? These should be free if the 5cents is truly a “Green Tax”!

    In terms of being green, reuse is WAY better than recycling.

  12. It’s easy for drivers to stock the car with bags and boxes, those of us who subway/walk everywhere have to actively remember to bring them, which hasn’t taken with me yet. But it will become second nature eventually. I said it on the forum thread, but the number of plastic bags coming one block from the supermarket to my office every lunchtime with one apple or one yoghurt or something in them was absurd waste. Sure some bags are being reused in homes but those at my office were being fired straight in the garbage day after day. I’m all for this and don’t really care if stores are making a handful of cents a month off me.

    In Ireland, my home country, they’ve charged for plastic bags for years. It’s really interesting to see how totally ingrained it’s become – people all have their different fashion statement canvas bags, everyone carries some with them, etc. They’ve survived!

  13. I find it interesting the disparity of east-west here. Like a previous reader mentions, out west we’ve been charged for bags by Superstore (which sounds like Loblaws) for nearly a decade.

    Personally, I used to live downtown so I’d often find myself not driving to the supermarket as I lived close enough – I wouldn’t even bring plastic bags, I’d simply use a large backpack. That way plastic wasn’t being used at all. I’d often get comments about “What a great idea!” – which is funny because back home in Calgary I’d often get stared at for doing the same thing.

    Maybe that’s why Vancouver gets such a reputation of being such a hippy-green province. 😉 Interesting the difference, however!

  14. I feel like I am in university again. I bring my backpack to the store. But, I find it strange that I am saving on bags and then buy tea that wraps the box in cellophane then when you open the box, there’s another bag holding all the bags and, in some cases, each tea bag has its own paper pouch.

    The sensible solution would be to provide consumers with a choice between less wrapped product and more wrapped product with different price points and let the market decide.

  15. I’m frustrated by the whole bag situation too. I use reusable bags as much as possible, but I live in an apartment building with a garbage shut so I unfortunately still have to use plastic bags for my garbage! (I would love to know of an alternative!)

    What these companies need to do is bring back biodegradable plastic bags (I know they still make them — my local bakery has them!) I would pay for those.

    @ Canadian Capitalist — you’re not “into environmental causes”? I’m sad to hear it. I think we all have to play a part in protecting the environment.

  16. @Thicken My Wallet: provide consumers with a choice between less wrapped product and more wrapped product with different price points”

    Isn’t that the bulk barn? I am always scared for items that someone may have “sneezed” on or something though. Protection of that packaging is valuable.

  17. Remember this is not just about diverting from landfill. Yes, plastic bags are recyclable and shouldn’t be in the landfill at all. But believe it or not, many people put them in the garbage anyway.
    And even if you were reusing & recycling all your grocery bags before, those bags used enormous amounts of energy to be (a) produced (b) transported and (c) recycled. Ditto for the paper bags, hence why they are not free.
    What’s really important here is learning to avoid the use of disposables wherever possible. Reusable shopping bags, no bin liners (rinse your green bin, empty more often) etc.
    Not saying it’s easy. I hate cleaning the green bin. But it’s where we have to go.

  18. I apologize if my earlier comment sounded judgmental. I’m not heavy into environmental causes either, but I do try to live a more sustainable and eco-friendly life.

    I just sometimes feel like those of us who are making an effort are constantly undermined by people who can’t be bothered. We’re the ones making change, and the others are just getting a free ride.

  19. I am curious how long this reduction in bag usage will last. As others have mentioned, we in the west have been paying for bags at Superstore (a Loblaws store) for as long as anyone can remember.

    On an average $50 trip to Superstore I use 3 bags at a cost of 12 cents. On the other hand, I probably save roughly $15-30 versus buying the same groceries at Safeway or Sobeys. At that point the extra 12 cent fee looks pretty irrelevant.

    Beth: biodegradable bags sounds like a great idea! Any idea what the price difference would be compared to the regular plastic bags?

  20. @ Chris — that’s a good question. I’d love to know that myself. The bakery doesn’t charge for the bags (yet). They also sell bottled water in biodegradable bottles too — and that’s a little more expensive than regular bottled water.

    I tried buying no-name kitchen garbage bags, and they work out to be 5.4 cents a bag. The problem is they are far too big to fit down the chute, so I have to fill them only half way. I won’t do that again — I’m using twice as much plastic as I need to be. I’ll just “forget” my reusable bags on a few shopping trips and pay the five cents.

  21. It’s great that bag usage has dropped 55%, but there are still many people who don’t care about 5 cents and don’t care about the environment. But, as Jon pointed out, the cashiers are now stuffing the purchased bags fuller, which certainly helps reduce the number of bags even with those uncaring people.
    It has always annoyed me how some cashiers (especially at Safeways) only half-fill the bag, or needlessly double-bag something that isn’t really that heavy. Some will ask you if you want a bag for your 4L milk (and tend to double-bag if you say yes), but I always say no – I mean, there’s a handle on the jug so it’s just as easy to carry.
    One thing I love about shopping at Costco is that instead of bags they give you their used boxes. I find this makes loading and unloaded the car much faster. If only other grocery stores would offer this option! Sometimes if I see a suitable empty box on the shelves I’ll take it – nobody has complained so far (but I know those banana boxes get re-used so don’t steal those).

  22. Canadian Capitalist

    @Guinness: We’re more wasteful when something is free. It is not uncommon to see one item put in a plastic bag at Home Depot or even milk bags put in double bags at Loblaws when bags were “free”. When it costs money, the employees themselves and the customers are more conscious of waste, even if it is only a nickel.

    @Beth: I don’t think my intent came out clearly. I didn’t mean that I don’t care about the environment; just that I’m not an “environmentalist”. For instance, I used to stockpile the plastic bags intending to throw it in the recycle bins at Loblaws. It’s just that I never get around to it and eventually we just throw it in the garbage. Not too environmentally friendly, right? i.e. I do my best but that’s because I hate to be wasteful anyway, not for any special environmental reasons.

    @Shawn: In fact, there is some concern that some reusable bags might be too dirty:

    @Chris: Not sure but I would wager that after the initial shock, those who continue to use plastic bags will get used to the charge as a new normal and continue their wasteful ways. Hopefully, those who changed their ways won’t regress back.

  23. I have been taking advantage of the PC points for quite some time. By now I believe I have at paid for my canvas reusable bags at least 2x. At the self checkout you just mention to the cashier that you want PC points and they ring it in for you :).

    I think my biggest disappointment is in the quality of the bags they are charging for. I was on a recent shopping trip in the States and the free bags they gave me were 10x better than the crap ones we get here. I’m all for charging extra to reduce excessive use, but if I pay for a bag I would like it to make it out to the car with me.

    Some countries (mostly third world) have laws that allow you to leave the extra packaging at the store and the manufacturers are expected to pay for disposal. I would love to see a similar law enacted here, we would start seeing less wasted packaging and definately more friendly packages so the manufacturer doesn’t spend as much disposing of the junk.

    Micropayments are the most effective way of encouraging people to act or behave a certain way. 5 cents really means nothing to most people and yet it reduced bag use by 50+%. Could you imagine what other small and annoying charges could be created to make us all more evironmentally responsible?

  24. I’ve been paying the 5 cents a bag at Loblaws and the other food retailer where I shop. I need the bags to line my garbages and to collect/sort recyclable plastics before dumping them in my large outside recycling bin.

    I previously used all my plastic bags for garbage disposal/ recycling and if too many accumulated in my closet then I’d send a batch to recycling. None were ever thrown in the trash on their own

    I find it rather funny that many folks love this new idea because of the way others’ behaviour has been changed while simultaneously continuing to use bags from other non charging retailers. What happens when they all charge for bags and your reserves disappear?

    I haven’t bothered to evaluate the price of Glad or other bags available to be bought, 5 cents is cheap enough for the purpose and more convenient than the alternative. I purchase 4-6 bags a week.

    Also noticed the employees cram the bags beyond their capacity since the change as mentioned above. Kind of annoyed me at first so now I tell them how many bags I’m buying when they finish ringing up my items. Pretty silly to damage your food items to save a lousy 5 cents.

  25. I personally would LOVE to see the HOV lanes (for those not familiar, that’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes intended for cars with 3+ people in them) enforced strictly.

    My wife, myself and my son (That’s #3, way to go boy! Only 2 and being useful!) routinely see single drivers in the HOV lanes. Love to see tickets of $500 get doled out if you drive one light past a right turn.

  26. 50PC point didn’t work probably because not everybody who used to come to Lablaws had a points card while 5c is charged to everybody.

  27. I think this is great. The should even increase the price of a plastic bag much further so that people stop using them

  28. I think this is an interesting case of behaviour change. I’m no ‘environmentalist’ either, but I do try hard and I’m proud of how little waste we produce.

    What this little ‘experiment’ shows is that even a small levy can produce significant changes in consumer behaviour. I think the reason it works in this case is because people really don’t need disposable bags and there are many easy solutions, no bags, reusuable bags, boxes etc.

    Whether eliminating or reducing plastic bags has a huge impact or not is not the issue. If it makes 1% of a difference, its worthwhile. The environment minister and department really should be looking for areas where similar levies can be introduced.

  29. @ Canadian Capitalist — I read that study about the reusable bags and the issue is that people aren’t bothering to wash them. ANYTHING that comes into contact with food, dirt, etc. needs to be cleaned regularly to prevent cross contamination.

    The study was funded by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. Interestingly, they did not look at the bacteria that collects on plastic bags that get reused (i.e. to pack lunches). They compared the reusable bags that had been used for a while (a couple were over a year old, I think) to pristine, never-been used plastic bags.

    I skip the bags sometimes and use a cooler or cooler bag instead. Easier to clean, carries more, and keep things cool in my trunk on the drive home!

  30. @ Canadian Capitalist — See, I knew I was jumping to conclusions 🙂 My apologies.

    I work in a big city, so I’m used to seeing water bottles and coffee cups pile up because being wasteful is more convenient than taking the time and energy to pack a reusable mug or bottle. (And hey, time is money, right?)

  31. This makes me wonder… if you bring your own mug into Tim Horton’s they give you 5 or 10 cents off your coffee. While my husband and I always try to bring a mug with us, I’d say we are still in the vast minority.

    If they reduced all their prices by those 5 or 10 cents but then added it on afterwards if you hadn’t brought a mug, do you think it would actually be successful at changing people’s behaviour?

  32. We also used grocery stores bags for garbage in the past, but we stopped doing that long time ago. The bags had holes in them and we used to throw them out as soon as we get home, we reused may be less than 50%… that was a huge waste. We started paying for glad, way less frustrating and time saving (I don’t have to look for holes, nor do I have to cleanup the mess if there was one)
    So the argument to reuse those bags is empty.

    No frills in GTA has been charging for bags for ages, and its never been an issue, why would you want to force those who bring their own bags to subsudize the bags for those who don’t care about throwing them.
    I prefer that people that use something should pay for it, so if you don’t care about throwing bags pay for them, you obviously don’t care about the money if you are paying for it directly, or indirectly through the grocery store.

  33. We’ve grudgingly been buying bags since they started charging for them. One of the reasons we continue to is buy bags is that they make such great scooper bags for when walking the dog. Personally, I find it very frustrating that even though prices has gone up, and the quantities have decreased, the grocery stores aren’t making enough money yet, so they need to start charging for bags which used to be free.

  34. In Alberta the superstores are moving away from plastic bags completely – you don’t even have the option to buy them, they don’t sell them!

  35. WP — you seem kind of bitter towards grocery stores for trying to make a profit – running a grocery store or any sort of food related company for that matter seems like a very difficult way to make a living. That many grocery stores have come and gone is a testament to this and they weren’t all run by dumb people. Prices may go up but that doesn’t mean their costs didn’t. Your comment reminds me of the simpson’s episode where Moe puts Homer in charge of the bar, and Homer opens the beer taps without a glass underneath and Moe says “hey I have to pay for that!” and Homer replies “No Moe, you’ve got it backwards, we pay you.”

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  39. Somewhere between 500,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000 plastic bags are used each year worldwide. That’s between 16,000 and 32,000 bags per second! The great majority of these bags are not recycled as it costs nearly three times as much to recycle a plastic bag as it does to produce a new one . Instead, most are simply thrown away.

    But once they are thrown away by consumers, plastic bags can cause all kinds of environmental problems. Furthermore, these bags last around one thousand years in a landfill. At our current rate of consumption, this means that one thousand years from now our landfills will contain somewhere between 500 trillion (500,000,000,000,000) and one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) plastic bags. That sure is a lot of zeros, and a heck of a lot of bags.

    As someone who has been using cloth shopping bags for over a decade, I am very happy that the government finally stepped in to ‘encourage’ people to do the right thing and not the lazy, easy alternative.

    I don’t buy garbage bags. For those looking for alternatives: Milk comes in plastic bags as do many other products. Use these for trash. Place your small trash bags in a garbage bin. They don’t have to go in a big black garbage bag too. How many layers do you need to protect your waste?? If you run out of these sorts of plastic bags, buy the biodegradable bin-liner bags.

    Biodegradable plastic bags are a scam. They don’t biodegrade completely – they just break down into small pieces which are eaten by animals.

    You can even avoid bin liners by just using newspaper.

    Come on people, if you applied half the imagination and effort that you do to PF to helping to greenify your lives, we could all make huge strides. It’s not that hard!


  40. By the way, for the postesrs who say “I’m not an really into environment causes”, what exactly is the opposite of an environmentalist? An I-don’t-care-about-the-future-of-the-planetist, or who-cares-live-in-the-momentist?

    I mean seriously, how can you NOT care? I’m not suggesting you quit your job and go save the whales, but to not care at all?

  41. Yay Victor!

  42. Victor is absolutely right. You rock!

  43. I applaud your reply, Victor. An excellent summary.

    For those who don’t know the difference, compostable and biodegradable are two completely different beasts.

    Compostable items can break down into organic matter.
    Sugar-based compostables do so faster than corn-based compostables. Paper and food are compostable. All compostables may go in your green compost bin. A (compostable) newspaper lining will save you money over plastic liners. You can also keep your compost and use it for your garden, which saves money on fertilizer. Either use an outdoor compost, or create a worm compost. (btw, worm composts don’t stink.)

    Biodegradable just means it degrades. Biodegradable plastic just breaks down into small plastic molecules that are good for nothing but being small bits of plastic that easily move around the soil and potentially the water supply. Don’t waste money on this.

    I have been using reusable bags for years to buy groceries. I still have a steady supply of plastic bags. I find I always have something to put my garbage in. Milk bags, cereal bags, fresh produce bags, bags that wrap that new thing you bought, bags your friend returned your stuff in… It’s also a good idea to use fewer bags. There are usually alternative places to put your waste (compost, recycle), and don’t typically buy products with lots of packaging (they’re often pricey).

    An interesting note – conservation is something that saves your wallet as well as the environment. Being “green” could just as well be talking about those twenties you’ve been saving using “reduce” and “reuse”. (Both are far more important than “recycle”.

  44. Victor and Mel, you guys are great! Thanks for the summaries. I guess I should stop hoping for biodegradable bags! wow.

    Once I have a house, I’ll be able to be greener because I’ll have more options open to me — like being able to compost!

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  46. “Loblaws penalizes customers who use plastic bags and rewards those who ditch them.”

    I can only sit and shake my head at this statement. A company needs customers to survive. Treat your customers like they owe you something and they’ll leave. It is not a privilege for me to shop there. It’s a privilege for them to have me as a customer. They are not my parents or the government. They have no right to “penalize” me.

    “The program is a fascinating case study in how incentives influence behaviour.”

    Very fascinating. For example, Home Depot and Rona started charging for bags. I stopped shopping there and started shopping at smaller stores that still care about customer service. The end result is I’m probably paying more than I would of if I had just bought the bags, but my satisfaction is higher. HD and Rona lost a couple of thousand in profits to their competition because they wouldn’t give out a couple of dollars worth of bags.

    The decline in customer service and companies’ arrogance gave me incentive to seek out their competitors. Or was that not their intention? 😉

  47. @Ron — I hate to say it, but I don’t think they notice you’re gone. People who are good customers at Rona or Home Depot usually aren’t carrying their stuff out in little plastic bags 😉

    I applaud places that charge for plastic bags. I’ve worked in retail for many years and seen how wasteful people can be. Sadly, many people don’t care more about a nickel than they do the environment.

  48. I think everyone is missing the point, don’t get me wrong I agree with recycling. However, WHY are we paying five cents for bags with their name on. If they gave me a plain white plastic bag that would be different, but we’re paying for their ADVERTISING. I ask if they want me to carry my groceries out of the store with their name on it, they should PAY me. Other wards, give me a plain white bag. Wake up people were paying for their advertising.

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  50. I think paying for shopping bags is bull****. The bags are recyclable. We’re paying for their advertising – very true. Now, not only does the public foot the bill for producing the bags and the advertising, if you do not want to pay 5 cents/plastic bag, you have to buy a bag that costs 20 times more and let’s face it – WILL end up in the landfill. How is that benefitting the environment. This paying for plastic bags under the guise of being more environmentally friendly is a way to get you to pay for the bags AND increase your spending by paying for the cloth (or whatever material) re-usable bag.
    The No Frills stores (or whatever name the store happens to go by that operates in the same manner as NF does) implemented paying for bags because of their No Frills policy. Lowering prices in general so that the consumer got a better deal and they could compete with the larger grocery stores for your dollar. If Loblaws wants the public to be more environmentally conscious and consumer friendly, why do they not also implement the courtesy/strategy of the No Frills stores and offer customers the option to use a discarded box to take their groceries away in instead of strong arming them into – so they say – being more environmentally friendly/conscious.

  51. What bottom line? Retailers included the cost of bags, cart maintenance, and loss to theft into the markup of their items prior to this fee. That is why there is that certain store (coincidentally owned by Loblaws) which sells food cheaper because it has… oh…. what’s the word?



  52. Just wanted to add that Zellers will give you HBC points for using re-usable bags and I think Giant Tigers gives you 3 cents off if you use one. Have not tried it at GT to confirm but have used them at Zellers and you do get the points, just can’t remember how many.

  53. This morning I stopped at Metro in Brampton, there were 2 girls in front of me, they asked for a bag and the cashier told them bags cost 6 cents each. I thought all stores were supposed to charge 5 but I guess it’s up to each store.

  54. Loblaws concerned about the enviroment ? Ha .if thats the case why are they still using styrofoam and plastic wrap .Its a great way to make extra money and boast that its being done for the enviroment

  55. Forget the bag fee. Loblaws is the biggest rip off grocery store out there. Their prices are outrageous.

  56. Patricia Burroughs

    I can’t find a site to explain where the nickel is going and none of the store employees has a clue. Wouldn’t you think maybe someone would have told them what to answer? And if we are talking about landfills!!! Lets talk about disposable diapers. You can hike the most remote forests and find a discarded dirty diaper some earth lover decided to leave behind. And the contamination is yet another issue for these pieces of plastic that can’t be recycled.