One of the unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was the sudden pause imposed on the increasingly widespread acceptance and usage of reusable bags.

But as some stores across B.C. are once again allowing shoppers to use their own bags to pack their groceries, returning to a habit many had before the height of the pandemic has been slow.

Provincial officials lifted guidelines advising against reusable bags seven weeks ago, but some stores and shoppers have yet to return to the bring-your-own-bag routine. 

For people who study the impact of plastic on the environment, the initial move to ban reusable bags in late March came as a blow — even if there was agreement with the reasoning. 

“Even before COVID … we were really worried about the amount of plastic that goes into the ocean,” said Rashid Sumaila, a Canada Research Chair and director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at UBC.

On March 29, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recommended that single-use bags be used at stores and that customers should not use their own containers, reusable bags or boxes.

Most stores complied and provided single-use plastic bags for free — including stores that charged a fee for plastic bags before the pandemic to encourage people to bring reusable alternatives.

Rhiannon Moore, the City of Victoria’s zero-waste coordinator, said some shoppers circumvented the guidelines by putting their groceries back in a shopping cart and wheeled that out to their car to load goods into their own bags there.

Recycle B.C., which manages residential package and paper recycling in B.C., says it does not yet have data to indicate where all the extra plastic bags used so far during the pandemic have ended up. It is also encouraging people to store materials at home, such as rolling up plastic bags into tight bundles, if it isn’t convenient to take them to a depot.

“Luckily, in the case of plastic bags, you can store a large number in a very small space by using one bag to collect many and then bringing these to the depot if it is open or when it reopens,” he said.

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