You can do better, Gary

I should title this as an open letter to all manufacturers and retailers of paper yard-waste bags, but I’m going to pick on Gary, the Canadian Tire Guy, because he’s the face of their ‘Tested for life in Canada’ commercials.

Well, I live in Canada, Gary. In fact, I live in Calgary, Alberta where the city has finally done the right thing and implemented a full scale organic waste disposal program. The green bins decorating every alley and laneway are a generous size and more than adequate for the collection of normal household organic waste. However, the bins fall short in the spring and autumn when yard clean ups generate enough biomass to fill them 5 or 10 times over. The city has a plan for that – large paper yard waste bags. Excess yard waste goes in the paper bags and can be set out for collection in accordance with the scheduled weekly organic pick up. They even included a 5-pack of the bags in their ‘starter kit’ that came with the bins.

Five bags. I used up my allotment in the first week when I pruned my trees. After that I was on my own; scouring local stores for more bags. I garden a lot, so I’ve tried out a few different brands over the course of the summer. My least favourite came from Canadian Tire, but to be honest, none of them were all that great.

For the sake of those who do not know me personally, just some quick background. I work professionally for a landscaping and yard maintenance company and, trust me, I’ve filled more than a few paper bags with yard waste.

Responsible composting is better than using plastic bags and since most yards don’t generate more weeds than can fit in the green bins every week, I wasn’t too fussed about using the paper bags in the summer. Come autumn, I am part of a crew that shows up with blowers and leaf vacuums to clean up our client yards. We also have access to tarps, trucks and trailers to haul everything away to the City’s organic waste dump for disposal. That’s not the garden clean up I’m talking about.

When I work in my own garden I don’t have access to all that equipment. At home I still do fall clean up like everyone else – rake, bag, repeat. And just like most home gardeners in Calgary, I have limited time to get the job done on the few nice autumn weekends before the snow flies, so it’s not very practical to spread out the work over several garbage pick-up cycles. Therefore I’m beholden to using commercially produced paper yard-waste bags, including those sold by Canadian Tire. I’m not sure what kind of giddy-up grannies or frenetic fourth graders tested Canadian Tire branded paper bags and gave them a better than 4 out of 5 star rating,  but I am not convinced. I would shop elsewhere for better ones but I’ve discovered that all the different brands I tried this summer have the same fundamental flaws.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of using paper yard-waste bags, here’s the skinny.  The bags are difficult to use. I’m not the tallest person around, but frankly anyone with arms shorter than those of an Orangutan couldn’t reach down to the bottom of the bags to open them up properly. I pretty much have to slip the bag over my head and torso to get it unfolded to the point where it will stay open on its own. After I’ve fought my way out of the paper bag, I’m ready to go – sort of –  except the height and the rectangular bottom of the bag makes it unstable, so I have to prop it up against a fence, and even then the creases of the double ply kraft paper are pretty pernicious, so the stupid thing wants to collapse in on itself when I turn my back.

Why did I turn my back? Well, to pick up a big old armload of leaves or a pile of expired plants of course! Wasn’t that the point?  Which brings me to the next issue. So far all the bags I’ve used are awkward to fill. The opening of the bag (assuming it hasn’t folded in on itself like an accordion) is smaller than an armload of leaves. There’s no way that armload I want to dump into the bag will go in cleanly, especially if there’s a couple of twigs or plant stalks sticking out at random angles.

If I’m lucky, half the armload will go in before the bag folds up on itself or tips over. If I’m unlucky, the bag will tear down one side as the half armload goes in. I have to pick my poison. Full armloads means twice as much raking and if I resort to half armloads I will do twice as much bending down. Either way it is more work than normal and I’m suddenly nostalgic for the days of stuffing everything into plastic bags and feeling guilty about the negative impact on the environment.

Speaking of stuffing the bags. Don’t. If the paper bags don’t rip during load up, they will definitely rip or bust open if I try to tamp down the load of leaves too much. I say ‘tamp’ because the shape of the bags makes it impossible to stomp them down like in the good old days of over-stuffing a plastic bag securely stretched over the rim of a garbage can.

Finally, the system of ‘crimping down’ the top of each paper bag to close it is something I have yet to master. Even if I do manage it, I’m left with the task of figuring out the best way to carry the bag to the back alley for pick up without having it tear. And hopefully it doesn’t snow or rain before pick up day because the bags can’t handle much weather before they lose structural integrity. I suppose that is the point; they are biodegradable, but having them disintegrate and dump their contents prematurely is a bit discouraging and it pisses off the neighbours who live down wind.

I’m all for being environmentally responsible. This is not a rant against Calgary’s Organic Waste Disposal system, but the program is only as good as its weakest link and even the smallest irritation can discourage people from participating in it properly. I’ve seen some gadgets out there that supposedly help with wrangling paper yard-waste bags, but that’s not my point either.

What I’m saying, Gary, is that nothing good can come of inferior paper yard-waste bags. If you’ve stuck with me so far, thanks. Here is the pay off in the form of a couple of quick off-the-cuff suggestions for improving their functionality and restoring credibility to the ‘Tested for Life in Canada’ advertising Schtick.

First of all, a thicker paper is better. During the summer I used some bags purchased at Rona that were thicker and sturdier. It made a difference. However, even the Rona bags would be improved if they had better proportions, by which I mean shorter and wider. It wouldn’t have to be a drastic change either; maybe have your guys make the bags 15% shorter for easier unfolding and trade that off by making the base 15% wider for stability and easy loading. I’m not sure about the math, but I think the volume of the bags would stay the same and the amount of paper for manufacturing would too. I have no insights into the business of designing paper products but it seems to me that it is worth running the experiment, or a least giving consumers a choice. Disposable coffee cups and plastic bags come in every shape and size, so why not paper yard-waste bags?

So here’s the challenge, Gary (and Walmart and Rona and all the rest of you). Build me a better paper yard-waste bag! Make it a shorter, wider, sturdier bag – I’m thinking more Grande than Venti – something that will accommodate an arm load of leaves without collapsing or tipping or ripping. Test the heck out of it with some real gardeners like me and see what happens. Keep the old bags for those who like the status quo and offer a choice for those who don’t. It could be the start of something big – or something shorter and wider and more functional.


I know it’s been ages since I last posted on my blog, so if I have any followers left out there; thanks for listening, thanks for reading, and thanks for forwarding this post to Canadian Tire if you dare.

Quantum Hamsters and Other Pet Anomalies by Hermine Robinson

It was my wife, Esme, who suggested we get a pet for our children. “It will teach them responsibility,” she said. “Sounds good,” I replied. However, I was not actually paying attention when she bro…

Many Thanks to Literally Stories for publishing my short story, check it out at the link below.
Source: Quantum Hamsters and Other Pet Anomalies by Hermine Robinson