Plastic Pollution

Anti-Plastic Bag Activists Have a New Weapon: Shame

A Canadian grocery store tried to shame its customers with embarrassing plastic bags.


In addition to bans, fees, and moral preening, anti-plastic bag advocates have a new trick up their sleeve for inspiring you to bring a reusable tote on your next trip to the grocery store: shame.

Two weeks ago, East West Market, a grocery store in Vancouver, Canada, rolled out a new line of single-use plastic bags for customers who don't bring bags to the store. The bags feature less than flattering business names, including "The Colon Care Co-Op," "Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium," and "Dr. Toew's Wart Ointment Wholesale."

Each bag also features the tagline, "Avoid the shame. Bring a reusable bag."

"It's hard to always remember a reusable bag. We redesigned our plastic bags to help you never forget again," reads the caption to a video announcing the new bags posted to East West Market's Facebook page.

Given the terrible reputation of plastic bags, and the admittedly clever phony business names displayed on East West Market's bags, the business's gambit is earning a lot of positive press, including write-ups in The New York Times and Huffington Post.

The city of Vancouver currently requires businesses to develop strategies for reducing their plastic bag use. It also gives them a menu of policy options for achieving their goals. They can either cease giving out bags, impose a fee on them, or develop "other mechanisms" that will help them reach a bag reduction target set in consultation with the city.

East West Market has chosen a mix of the last two options. The New York Times reports that the store charges 5 cents for every gag bag carried about by a shame-laden customer.

Like a lot of plastic pollution policies, this one may have backfired. Commenters on the store's Facebook page seemed more inclined to use plastic bags now that they come with a joke.

"Please may I buy all three? I promise I will reuse them to tatters," said one woman. "This just makes me want to use your plastic bags even more, sorry not sorry, this is awesome," said another.

That might cut against the grocery store's goals, but the environment will be fine either way.

According to Vancouver's 2017 litter audit, plastic bags make up only 5 percent of all large litter items, and only 17 percent of those bags were plastic retail or grocery bags. By comparison, cups made up 20 percent of all large liter items. Candy and snack wrappers made up 7 percent.

The reusable tote bags that East West Market is pushing can also be terrible for the environment. A number of studies have found that the production of cotton tote bags produces far more emissions than the production of plastic bags.

Regardless, wealthy countries like Canada are responsible for a tiny fraction of marine plastic waste.

Despite their persistent demonization as an environmental menace, plastic grocery and retail bags are generally a small portion of litter, require few resources to produce, and are a super durable and cheap way to hold a bunch of grocery items. We shouldn't feel bad about that.