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Supermarket's Plan to Cut Waste with Embarrassing Plastic Bags Backfires in Major Way

The bags are printed with logos like The Colon Care Co-Op, Dr. Toew’s Wart Ointment Wholesale, or the Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium.
Screenshots via Instagram

Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that the country would ban single-use plastics—including bags, straws, stir sticks and cutlery—as early as 2021 if he is elected to a second term in the fall. “Canadians know firsthand the impacts of plastic pollution, and they're tired of seeing their beaches, parks, streets, and shorelines littered with plastic waste,” he said in a statement.


Some cities and provinces are already a few steps ahead of Trudeau: Vancouver, for example, voted a year ago to start reducing the use of single-use plastics, and its own ban on plastic straws (and on styrofoam cups and containers) starts in 2020. Under its Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy, Vancouver requires businesses to “have reduction plans for plastic and paper shopping bags,” and the owners have to decide whether they’ll either go entirely without paper and plastic bags, or whether they’ll charge a fee for those single-use products.

East West Market, an independent grocery in the city, originally chose option two, and since last September, it has charged 5 cents for each plastic bag its customers use. We say ‘originally’ because now, in addition to charging a nickel, East West is implying that its shoppers are into some freaky stuff.

Vancouver Is Awesome reports that the Market recently switched from the standard version to customized plastic bags that have been designed to playfully shame whoever’s carrying them. The bags come in three different versions, which each have been printed with one of three logos: The Colon Care Co-Op, Dr. Toew’s Wart Ointment Wholesale, or Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium. (We would lowkey carry that one everywhere; we want the Walgreens cashier to wonder what I’m really doing with this Duraflame log.)

“We moved to a 5-cent fee as a way to discourage customers from taking them, however, we still saw customers who would forget their reusable bags or not give the 5-cent charge a second thought,” East West Market owner David Lee Kwen told VICE. “We thought this would be a humorous approach that would get their attention, and make them think about a behavior that can easily become a habit.”


Kwen said that the custom-printed bags cost more than a standard plastic bag, so they’re being used as a “limited run” in order to start a conversation about single-use plastics. “Yes, some customers decide not to take them,” Kwen said. “And if they have taken them, we’ve been able to chat about why we’re doing this, and why it’s important. Some want to collect them, because they love the idea, and they like the designs.” (Yes, the market does sell reusable bags, and Kwen says that these designs may eventually end up on reusable totes, too.)

Although the store’s objective is clearly to get customers to bring their own bags—and because of Kwen’s designs, we’ve already learned more than we ever thought possible about Vancouver’s Single Use Reduction Strategy—but some social media commenters are asking “WHY WOULD A GROCER DO THIS?”

OK, yes, we know that social media is a festering virtual landfill that is worse than anything we have, physically, on this planet, and we also know that it’s goddamn impossible to please everyone, but some legit concerns have been raised. Some people have asked whether trying to “embarrass” customers is the best option, while others wonder why East West Market would invest in new plastic bags in an attempt to cut down on plastic bag use.

“A totally counterproductive [sic] and a stupid stunt to get people into the store,” one Facebook commenter wrote, adding an eye-rolling emoji to show that she means fuckin’ business. Still others have criticized the decision to use “The Colon Co-Op” as a joke, especially considering how prevalent—and how already stigmatized—colon cancer is.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Kwen acknowledges. “We wanted to address an issue, but we’ve also made something popular. Our aim was to start a conversation that could go beyond people just remembering their reusable bags when they come to our market—and we’re glad that the conversation has kept growing, with anyone who’s seen or interacted with the bags.” (Perhaps the only thing worse than being lightly dragged on social media is not being lightly dragged on social media.)

Although East West is trying to help its customers do the right thing, the store itself does still trade in, well, a fair amount of plastic. Its recent daily specials have included plastic-wrapped red peppers and plastic-wrapped mini cucumbers, and plastic-wrapped figs, and plastic-wrapped sugar mangoes, and strawberries in plastic clamshells– and, well, you get it. “We will be looking at these things in the future,” Kwen said. “We’ll take it one step at a time.”

According to the city of Vancouver, an estimated 2 million plastic shopping bags are thrown into the city’s collective trash every single week, although a significant number of those are ultimately reused as—you guessed it—trash bags. Here’s hoping that none of them advertise for the Weird Adult Video Emporium. That’s not a bag, it’s a five-cent collector’s item.