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Sarah Bley said non-profits like hers are having a hard time getting the bags they need. Photo: Elizabeth McDonald

Stuck holding the bag: Vancouver bylaw leaves businesses with thousands of plastic bags that non-profits need

Non-profits have hoped to see businesses donate leftover bags after being exempted from Vancouver’s recent ban

By Curtis Seufert and Elizabeth McDonald , in City , on February 14, 2022

When Pablo Larrea heard non-profits were exempt from Vancouver’s plastic bag ban bylaw, he sent out nearly a dozen emails to food shelters in Vancouver offering to donate his excess bags. He said he has around 10,000 plastic bags at his K&K Pet Foods store that he’s hoping to give away.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I’m contacting food shelters. They might use them, or can donate them or something like that,” said Larrea.

“I haven’t heard any response. Maybe they don’t need them, so I’m stuck with them.”

Small-business owners like Larrea are unsure what to do with their leftover plastic bags since Vancouver implemented a bylaw banning them Jan. 1. The bylaw carves out an exemption for non-profits allowing them to continue their use, and the city has suggested that businesses donate reusable and excess plastic bags they no longer need. But word isn’t getting out as intended.

Pablo Lerrea shows off just a handful of his 10,000 excess plastic bags. Photo: Pablo Lerrea

Sarah Beley leads one non-profit that’s been affected. As the executive director of Working Gear, she and her team provide industry-appropriate clothing for their clients re-entering the workforce, including workwear, high-visibility jackets, steel-toed boots, and suits and ties for the office.

It might seem like a minor detail, but Beley and her team need a steady supply of bags to deliver the bulky gear to their clients.

She said they’ve tried using paper bags to hand out clothes but that they’re not cutting it in Vancouver weather. 

“[Our clients] often don’t come with bags,” said Beley. “And because it’s Vancouver and they’re usually taking public transit or walking, a paper bag would disintegrate in the rain or snow. And they can’t really hold the weight of steel-toed boots or heavy rain jackets. They’re not as durable as plastic bags.”

The city has even posted a list online of non-profits currently taking plastic and reusable bags. Working Gear signed up to be on that list, but it doesn’t seem like it’s had much of an impact.

Beley said, “I was hoping that after we applied [for donations], we’d be receiving a lot more bags, but we haven’t received any.”

Small businesses left out of the loop

London Drugs’ sustainability specialist Raman Johal did hear about the city’s donation advice through a webinar it hosted last year explaining the bag-ban rollout. He said the city communicated things well compared to other cities with bag bans, but thinks it could be more difficult for small and independent business owners to monitor the city’s recommendations as closely as he does.

“I’m also just part of various industry groups and retail groups that send out that kind of information. So it was perhaps easier for us as a larger organization to get some of that info and registration links, for webinars, perhaps than some smaller businesses.”

Hailey Huang is one small business owner that was expecting more information from the city. She said she has enough on her plate running Dunbar’s Cosy Inn Cafe and adapting to the ban without having to find where to donate her excess bags.

“I was waiting for someone to tell me what I can do with those bags. I don’t have extra time to search for those kinds of topics,” said Huang.

But larger businesses, those that do have the time and resources to stay up to date on the city’s sustainability policy, have a use for bags outside of donating them. Johal said that London Drugs was able to keep its bags by moving them to locations in other areas where plastic bags are still allowed.

“It’s quite easy for us to do that, of course. But I know it must have been more difficult for smaller businesses that just have the one location,” said Johal.

Representatives from other chain stores, like Home Hardware and Pure Integrative Pharmacy, also confirmed that they sent most of their bags back to head office.

Working Gear isn’t the only non-profit that has missed out on bag donations from businesses, either. Of the 16 non-profits listed on the city’s website as possible recipients for unused bags, only two said they were given a donation.

One of those non-profits is AIDS Vancouver. External relations director Adam Reiben said that their grocery program had received a donation of “approximately 5,000 bags” from the No Frills Denman location. However, AIDS Vancouver already has a pre-existing partnership with No Frills, and has been getting donations since before the bylaw was implemented.

Reiben said they aren’t expecting more from the Denman location and that “further supply will come through the [city of Vancouver] program or other suppliers who might contact us directly.”

City looks towards reusable bag program

City staff said it is currently reviewing the ban and taking action to minimize its potential impacts. Council has directed staff to report back with an update on the bylaw’s roll-out.

In addition to suggesting businesses donate their plastic bags to non-profits, the city has also said it’s working to expand on an existing reusable-bag donation program. 

The pilot program, created last year, collected bags from residents and distributed them for free to non-profits and social agencies throughout Vancouver. 

Joey Liu found success with that program so far. She’s the food-security manager with South Vancouver Neighbourhood House, which was part of the pilot program, and said it worked well for creating a continuous stream of reusable bags. 

The neighbourhood house wants to keep getting the bags for their food program, but Liu has some questions about how the expanded program will play out going forward. 

“[It] worked really well, I think it was a good success,” said Liu. “I think the question was, once the ban happens, how do we get those bags? Can we keep getting a fresh supply of them? Who’s going to clean them? Who’s going to drop them off to us? Stuff like that.”

She said city staff has contacted them for further input as they prepare to expand the program.

Sarah Beley has a lot of bulky work wear and boots to bag, but says that paper bags won’t cut it in Vancouver’s rainy weather.  Photo: Curtis Seufert

For now, Sarah Beley also wonders how the ban will impact non-profits going forward. Even before the bag ban, Working Gear tried to stay environmentally friendly by sticking with only donated bags and reclaimed clothing.

While it’s too early to say how things will play out, Beley hopes the ban doesn’t have the opposite effect of its intended function.

“I think it’s too early to see how the bylaw is going to affect anything,” said Beley.

“If we don’t get bag donations… [we] might have to buy plastic bags to provide our clients.” 

And while Beley says she could ask clients to bring their own bags, it’s not always an option for clients that non-profits like Working Gear serve. 

“That’s not a guarantee for everyone … not everyone has access to that.”