Weaning grocery shoppers off single-use plastic won't be easy, experts say

It's holding Brussels sprouts in the produce department, cradling croissants in the bakery, and helping you lug it all home at from the checkout.

Plastic is ubiquitous in most grocery stores, but that could change if Ontario moves forward with a ban on single use plastic items, including bags, straws, and food containers.

The government recently released a discussion paper on reducing litter and waste, and is asking for input on how to best address the problem. One question it asks is if a ban on single-use plastics would be effective in reducing plastic waste.

It's estimated that almost 10,000 tonnes of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes each year, the discussion paper says. Ontario's Blue Box recycling program recovers only about 28 per cent of all plastic packaging in the province.

Are single-use plastics on the way out?

The Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers is supportive of reducing plastic waste, but isn't "terribly enthused" about a blanket ban.

"On the ultimate outcome of eliminating plastic bags, we're on board with that as much as possible," senior vice president Gary Sands tells NEWSTALK 1010. "All we're saying is let's do it in steps that make sense and in areas where it's just not feasible, let's be sensitive to that."

Sands doesn't think that many people appreciate that role plastic plays in preventing contamination at the grocery store. He explains that some meats need to be wrapped in plastic so their juices don't leak onto other foods.

Sands worries about contamination of fruits and vegetables from things like the checkout conveyor belt if produce departments kill off plastic bags. He says that would have to be accompanied by a public education campaign, reminding shoppers to wash their produce once they get it home.

"There has to be a public education campaign because there's going to be problems if you don't", Sands warns.

Sylvain Charlebois, a food safety expert based at Dalhousie University argues it's not just about contamination, but economics.

"Plastics are used for a reason. They are cheap..for the industry and plastics do keep food safe," Charlebois tells NEWSTALK 1010. "To replace plastics won't be easy, but of course that doesn't mean that we shouldn't"

Many grocers and food producers have been looking for affordable, greener alternatives to plastic. At the same time, Charlebois says demand for packaged grab and go foods is growing.

Sands feels grocers are already doing a good job of reducing plastic waste by recycling, encouraging shoppers to bring bags from home, and charging for plastic bags at the checkout.

"Let the customer and store decide," Sands says.

with files from the Canadian Press