Since launching about a year and a half ago, volunteers in Pemberton have sewed over 2,000 reusable shopping bags through the Boomerang Bags initiative, which places cloth bags in bins at local stores for shoppers to use and return when they're done.
When program organizer Frances Dickinson recently visited the Pemberton Valley Supermarket—one of two local stores participating in the initiative, along with Stay Wild Natural Health—she counted only three of the reusable bags up for grabs.
"These bags don't belong to anyone, they belong to the program so that the next person can use them," Dickinson explained. "I just wanted people to really understand that if you want to borrow the bag, you need to return it in a timely manner. Not six months later, but ideally within the month or within a week or two."
Boomerang Bags started in Australia in 2013 as a grassroots initiative aimed at reducing plastic pollution, and has since spread to over 860 communities around the world. Volunteers donate their time to make reusable bags from recycled fabrics.
Locally, the initiative has garnered significant uptake, but that support hasn't translated into the timely return of bags for others to take advantage of.
"The purpose of it is if you forget your bags, then there are some bags available," said Kirsten McLeod, GM of the Pemberton Valley Supermarket. "So it was a little disappointing to see that they're not all coming back.
"To me, it seems like the majority of (the issue) is people forgetting to bring them back."
The good news is that, whenever Dickinson does post a reminder to return bags on Facbeook, "the next day, the bin is full again," she said. "People need those reminders."
Key to making the program work, Dickinson said, is having shoppers remember to bring their own reusable bags rather than relying on the Boomerang Bags.
"I think what's happened, which I feel is the crux of the problem, is that people aren't using their own bags. At the end of the day, everyone needs to start thinking about reducing their plastic use," she said. "(The Boomerang Bag) is only there in case of a shopping emergency."
The Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) considered a program similar to Boomerang Bags in Whistler, but grocery stores were reluctant to take part due to concerns around liability.
"One of the barriers to that was around FoodSafe and the grocery stores not taking on a liability for the cleanliness of a bag," said AWARE director Claire Ruddy. "You couldn't put that program inside a grocery store, which is why, in Pemberton, the Boomerang Bag setup is actually outside before you go into the store."
Ruddy added that the challenge of getting the bags returned in a timely way reiterated the need for consistent, ongoing engagement with the public.
"When we're talking about all these reusable items, it really reinforces the fact that the education needs to be ongoing, it needs to be visible, and it needs to be engaging for community members, whether they be our guests, our residents or our seasonal workers," she said.
"You have to have different approaches. Whether it's a reusable bag, a coffee cup or wooden cutlery, if we're going to achieve our zero-waste goals, we need to be continually reinforcing those kinds of positive action messages."
For information on the program (and the odd friendly reminder to return your outstanding bags), visit the Boomerang Bags Pemberton page on Facebook. Dickinson said there is also a need for volunteers who can sew. If interested, message Dickinson at the same Facebook page.