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Sylvain CharleboisMetro announced recently that it would become the first major grocery store chain in the country to allow customers to bring their own reusable containers for packaging of individual products. It’s a significant step forward for the industry, but it comes with risks.

The policy, which only applies in Quebec, will take effect on April 22.

Even though other grocers are likely to make similar positive announcements soon, this clearly sets a precedent.

Quebec’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries gave its blessing to the plan. Previously, retailers were solely responsible for the safety of the food served or sold in stores. As a result, they refused to fill containers they didn’t own. Now, responsibility is shared by both Metro and its customers.

However, containers must be plain and neutral, free of bar codes and logos. They also must be thoroughly clean and not damaged in any way. Glass containers are prohibited due to handling risks. Clerks at the store will have to ensure there’s no risk of contamination and verify all containers’ cleanliness.

Metro is really seeking is a moral contract with its customers, for the sake of food safety.

Pathogens are often invisible. Grocery store clerks, who often work under pressure, can’t know, beyond a reasonable doubt, if a container is clean. They will need to accept the customer’s confidence in his or her ability to clean containers.

As well, clerks must be well trained in handling containers of all sizes. And they must serve the public courteously while making sure counters and display tops don’t cross-contaminate any in-coming containers or food being sold. Accidents can quickly happen.

It will also be interesting to see how situational conflict is handled. Customers who’ve bought into the plastic-reduction movement will want their own containers filled. But if these containers are rejected at the point of service, these situations will require some diplomacy and consideration. All Metro needs is one customer to take to social media to show discontent over having containers rejected at the salad bar and the entire campaign is jeopardized. It will be shocking if it doesn’t happen within the first month.

So Metro is taking on some risks by implementing such a policy.

Nevertheless, Metro made the right decision. They were first, which means a lot in this business, especially when dealing with environmental issues. Plastics have become enemy number one over the last few years and grocers, among other food industry players, have struggled to find any quick packaging alternatives.

Replacing straws, bags and utensils seemed like more of a distraction than anything. With this new policy, Metro is getting to the core of the issue: plastic packaging.

For decades, plastic packaging has served an important purpose in the food industry – a cheap solution to food safety. Plastics gave us convenience, whether we liked it or not.

But now, Metro is betting that for its consumers, environmental stewardship trumps food safety. At the very least, they’re assuming both are equal in the eyes of their customers.

Consumers have voiced concerns for a few years, so it’s not surprising to see major grocers join independent retailers who were leading the way with reusable packaging.

Metro is embracing the first era of reusable packaging. And we should expect other grocers to push the reusable-packaging envelope even further. Next solutions could range from reusable packaging in consignment, shared across the supply chain, to compostable packaging. The technology exists.

But we’ve been spoiled by convenience for years and only time will tell if consumers will let go of the quest for the easy fixes that plastic packaging provides.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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