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Let’s not lose our hard-won gains in curbing single-use packaging

COVID 19 has changed the way we live. We shop more online. We eat takeout more than ever. The problem is that more and more of what we buy is packaged in layers and layers of plastic that can’t be recycled. As the science develops, it appears that surfaces contribute little to the spread of the novel coronavirus. So is this switch back to single-use packaging actually making us safer?

It’s time pick up where we left off and explore how we can regain momentum towards reusable packaging. Before COVID, some brave food retailers were allowing customers to ‘bring their own’ containers for purchases of products usually packed in-store. But it was not catching on as fast as other sustainable moves: reusable shopping bag were rapidly embraced, so much so that the grocery chain Sobeys has finally declared an end to providing plastic bags in all stores across Canada. However, allowing customers to bring their own containers seems to be more of a challenge for retailers.

Can they work through the issues? Here are five pointers for retailers who want to offer this service:

Create guidelines that promote uncompromising safety.

In the province of Quebec, Metro grocers had begun to accept reusable containers in all stores. A pilot project helped them create guidelines to ensure the safe practice of reusable, resealable containers. The policy stated that no glass containers are allowed, in order to prevent them breaking during handling. Once filled, containers were sealed with a label to ensure safe closure. As well, employees were allowed to reject customers’ containers if they are broken, damaged or dirty.

These guidelines attempted to ensure that products arrive home in the optimum state the store intended. It isn’t hard to imagine that such policies could be adapted to our current COVID reality ensure that safety, health and food quality are maintained.

Make reusables part of the brand.

Metro also banned containers with other company logos or branding. Their policy provided this explanation: we do not have the authorization from the trademark holder to use their property. But doesn’t this suggest an opportunity? Other retailers, such as Bulk Barn, promote using their own Bulk Barn branded reusable containers. Like a reusable shopping bag, a reusable container can be a medium that promotes a store brand.

Take baby steps.

Metro also allowed customers to bring their own zip-lock bags to use as containers for purchases. This may feel like promoting plastic rather than reducing it, but it reflects a real recognition about the human habit that needs to be changed. Consumers need to learn to bring their own container, whatever it is, rather than the store providing new single-use ones. Once the ‘bring your own’ habit becomes ingrained, hopefully consumers will remember to bring sustainable multi-use containers with every shopping trip.

Dedicate resources to education.

For both customer and employee education, retailers must make an investment. For customers, a reusable program should show up in all media, in-store, signage, flyer and digital. The fresh departments will need to have clear step-by-step instructions. Employees will need to be trained on the practices of weighing tare with the customers’ containers and how to use their judgement with the safety guidelines. These investments will be costly, but conscious shoppers, dedicated to reducing waste, will be loyal visitors to stores that create a positive culture for reusable practices. COVID 19 has been a setback, but retailers that display leadership in diverting single-use packaging will be rewarded.

Provide ways to ease the process.

Retailers who decide to launch and promote a ‘bring your own’ practice can create facilities to make it easier. Today stores reject customers’ containers if they are perceived to be dirty. Going forward, retailers can install sinks and washing stations for customers to ‘wash their own’, much as we’re all so conscious about washing our hands. Such a store would be an appreciated destination for commuter customers and others on the go who may not have had a chance to clean their containers before shopping.

Image Credit: SERC – Student Environmental Resource Center

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