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Reusable container pilot coming to select Ottawa grocery stores

As part of a pilot project launching in Ottawa at the end of April, reusable containers will be distributed to Walmart, Sobeys and Metro stores within a designated pat of the city. Customers can purchase select items in those  containers, then return them to drop-off locations.  (Darius Mahdavi/CBC - image credit)
As part of a pilot project launching in Ottawa at the end of April, reusable containers will be distributed to Walmart, Sobeys and Metro stores within a designated pat of the city. Customers can purchase select items in those containers, then return them to drop-off locations. (Darius Mahdavi/CBC - image credit)

A new pilot project aimed at reducing single-use plastics by involving major grocery retailers will be rolling out in Ottawa in the spring.

Launching at the end of April 2024, the project will distribute reusable containers to Walmart, Sobeys and Metro stores within a designated area of Ottawa.

Customers will be able to purchase select food items in those containers, and then return them to drop-off locations both inside and outside of the stores.

The project is being run by the Circular Innovation Council, with support from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Ottawa is a partner with the council and was identified as a good fit for a variety of reasons.

"It's big enough to demonstrate that this kind of application can happen anywhere in the country, but they're also small enough where maybe we can be a bit more flexible," said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of Circular Innovation Council.

"We're really keen to bring this Ottawa and they're very excited to have it," she said.

There are still a few details to be ironed out, St. Godard said, such as which exact neighbourhood will be used, but a section of Bank Street has been identified as a potential fit.

The grocery stores have discretion over what types of reusable containers they use and for which products. The hope is that the program will eventually move to other food establishments, such as restaurants.

Stores to work together

The three partner stores will share containers and will work collaboratively to organize cleaning, transportation and logistics. The model is a first in Canada, the council said.

"This is an industry-leading initiative that's set to revolutionize packaging and we are honoured to provide our technology for ending single-use waste and driving the circular economy," Jason Hawkins, CEO & co-founder of Reusables.com, said in a press release. His company is providing the reusable containers.

"I invite many more food retailers to join this consortium and be part of the solution," Hawkins said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last June the government was getting ready to prohibit the production and sale of single-use plastics in Canada, such as drinking straws, takeout containers and plastic cutlery.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last June the government was getting ready to prohibit the production and sale of single-use plastics in Canada, such as drinking straws, takeout containers and plastic cutlery.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last June the government was getting ready to prohibit the production and sale of single-use plastics in Canada, such as drinking straws, takeout containers and plastic cutlery. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The plan also involves eventual expansion to the entire city, and then to other regions in Canada.

"We want to see high participation rates, and that will be done through proving [the] convenience," said St. Godard.

"We also want to prove that this doesn't cost more for the grocers or the consumers, but in fact, actually cost less because we'll be eliminating avoiding the need to purchase single-use plastic containers," she added.

Environmental group gives praise for project 

There have been reusable container projects at smaller stores in Ottawa, but this one holds promise for a large-scale effort, according to one environmental group.

"It's the first time we're seeing a pilot or a project that involves more than one store. So a group of very large retailers who are sharing resources," said Karen Wirsig, senior program manager of plastics at Environmental Defence.

"It's big scale on a local level, which is important."

Wirsig said the key to this project is the creation of a system that makes it easy to reuse the items, which has the potential to change behaviours.

"We don't want to see a short-term pilot that people aren't committed to, that the stores aren't committed to and that, you know, doesn't end up leading to anything more permanent," she said.

"What we don't want to see is a system that's called reusable, but in which those containers are actually, in fact, only used once, because that's what people are used to," Wirsig added.

The pilot will run until March 2025.