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Toronto launches campaign to promote reusable shopping bags

Community leaders in Toronto believe a campaign to promote the use of reusable shopping bags in the main street will benefit the environment and business.

The ‘Turn Toronto Green’ campaign launched yesterday in Toronto was a first shot over the bow of the town’s major supermarkets, and is the result of six months planning and fundraising.

Carey Bay resident Henry Wellsmore first took the idea of a branded reusable bag for main street traders to the member for Lake Macquarie and the local Mayor Cr Greg Piper.

It has since been taken up by the Toronto Tidy Towns committee, which will take a proposal to the Toronto Business Chamber with the hope of subsidising a bulk purchase of bags made from recycled plastic.

But one supermarket yesterday hosed down suggestions of a complete ban on the free plastic shopping bags, despite participating in a self-imposed two-hour ban on plastic bags, thought to be the first of its kind for the retailer.

A spokesman for Coles Jim Cooper told ABC Newcastle the retailer did not think it ‘appropriate for us to put a mandatory ban on these bags for our customers’.

“We absolutely think that customers should be encouraged to choose a better option, but we don’t think it’s appropriate for us to force customers [to do so] through a ban,” Mr Cooper said.

“We absolutely think that they should make a choice.”

Mr Cooper said the retailer would instead roll out a new corn starch biodegradable bag and a range of other reusable bags in September, ‘to help give customers others choices that they can use as well’.

Between 11am and 1pm the retailer gave away an estimated 1300 of its own branded reusable bags, usually sold for a dollar each.

But Henry Wellsmore envisages a day when there will be no more plastic bags in Toronto, and the chair of Clean Up Australia Ian Kiernan AM endorsed the concept.

“It would be great if there were no more plastic bags in Toronto from tomorrow,” Mr Wellsmore said, “but that’s not going to happen.”

Ongoing community campaign

Part of the ongoing campaign will involve the participation of local primary school students, on hand yesterday to display artwork, perform music, and to receive the message from Australia’s foremost campaigner for the reduction of plastic.

Chair of Clean Up Australia Ian Kiernan AM said selling the message that plastic bags were ‘yesterday’s products’ was an essential part of ridding a community of unwanted single-purpose packaging.

“They’re tomorrow’s citizens, we just need them to realise they’ve got to put yesterday’s behaviours and yesterday’s products behind us, and plastic bags are certainly that, as is bottled water,” Mr Kiernan said.

Cr Greg Piper, introducing Ian Kiernan to school students, explained the purpose of the day to school students as being ‘about you guys [talking] to your mums and dads when they go to the shops and [saying] don’t forget to take the re-usable bags’.

Mr Kiernan said communities like Toronto that decide to get rid of plastic bags could find out how to go about mounting a campaign by visiting the Clean Up Australia website.

“The power of the community is terribly important, and what retailers have got to realise is that the community is the customer,” Mr Kiernan said.

Mr Kiernan gave the examples of Coles Bay in Tasmania and Huskisson in southern New South Wales as towns that had mounted successful campaigns to go plastic bag free.

Lyn Pascoe, who is both the secretary of the Toronto Chamber of Commerce and vice-president of Toronto Tidy Towns, says making a business case for recyclable bags to chamber members will be the next step in the campaign.

“We’re always faced with the retail leakage problem [locals shopping outside Toronto] and I think a campaign like this will encourage people back to shop in town,” Lyn said.

Local business support

Chair of Toronto Tidy Towns and former Charlton MP Kelly Hoare said it will require the commitment of the ‘majority of main street businesses’ to match the cost charged for reusable bags by the big supermarkets.

“The cost is an issue,” Ms Hoare said.

“Retailers may decide to come on board, buy bags, and then sell them at cost price [or] they may [decide to] sell them at a subsidised price.

“We as a tidy towns committee were actually able to raise $7500 just from the local community – with the support of Greg Piper as well – to buy 4,400 bags.

“They actually end up about $1.67 a bag when you buy it in that quantity, but we would need all of the retailers behind us if we were going to buy a bulk one.

“[Local businesses] would actually need to commit to subsidising and actually covering those costs.”

Ms Hoare said ‘about 10 retailers’ use single-purpose biodegradable shopping bags, similar to those being launched by Coles next month.

But she said ‘one of those [main street] retailers has indicated that, when those plastic bags run out, he’s actually going to get his own branded material bags’.

Ms Hoare, the long-time Federal member for Charlton before losing ALP pre-selection to Greg Combet in the 2007 election, acknowledges the campaign will require strong leadership.

And with the backing of the independent State member Cr Piper, local service clubs, Landcare groups, and other elected representatives such as Cr Wendy Harrison, she is convinced she has what it takes to carry it off.

“The Tidy Towns committee is made up of the whole community basically, and we’ve won lots of awards,” Ms Hoare said.

“People can see us putting in the hard yards; we don’t sit back and say we want everyone to do something for us, they can see us leading by example,

With the impending arrival in Toronto of an Aldi supermarket – which require shoppers to pay for bags – Ms Pascoe believes the time is right for the community to get behind the campaign.

“I think it possibly could make a difference,” she said.

“[Aldi] is very much behind the no plastic bag campaign as well, and that’s going to be another asset for us.”

Although they offer no precedent of a shopping-bag-led recovery for Toronto’s Main Street, the Toronto Tidy Towns committee is upbeat about its prospects for success.

“I think that we probably are [unique in that], we’ll just have to play it by ear and see how we go,” Ms Pascoe said, “and we’re just in there to try our best.”

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