Fiction: Bag bans are an effective way to eliminate the use of conventional plastic shopping bags and reduce waste.
Fact: No. Bans are not effective in eliminating the use of plastic bags because they do not recognize the reuse of bags beyond their role as a carry device. They undermine the 3 R principles and the trend to recycling worldwide. Bans are a top-down attempt to force sudden behaviour change and usually trigger avoidance behaviours.
A review of bag ban activity around the world shows that:
1. Total bans of plastic shopping bags in countries are rare and where they have been attempted they almost always fail.
2. A ban is a top-down directive that attempts to force a sudden change in consumer behaviour.
3. Reduction strategies that build awareness, educate, and encourage gradual change in consumer behaviour are more effective in managing, reducing and promoting responsible use of plastic shopping bags. This approach offers consumer’s choice within a voluntary approach that meets their needs and lifestyle (e.g. Canada, the UK, Wales).
4. Many decisions to ban plastic shopping bags are made based on misconceptions about environmental benefits and without analysis of the consequences or impacts of a ban. Bans need to be examined carefully on three metrics – economic, social and environmental.
5. Decisions to ban plastic bags always have consequences, intended and unintended, that are anti-environmental. Bans depending on the alternative result in higher resource use, more waste, more greenhouse gas emissions , and higher municipal waste costs. This is because the decision to ban often does not consider the alternate use for bags to manage household waste. There is also often an assumption that other alternatives are better for the environment without considering the science.
6. Bans to address litter concerns are ineffective because litter is more a people problem than a material (bag) problem.
What has Been Happening Around the World
- A scan of bag activities around the world (See Bags Around the World) shows that the long-term trend has been toward recycling, not bans (Examples, Japan, Canada, most European countries, China, Taiwan.) South Africa and Belgium for example, have bag fees/taxes that are directed to fund the recycling of the bags.
- Bans are a relatively new phenomenon, and are not the preferred public policy option in most countries.
- There are many different kinds of “bans” or what is called a ban. Complete or total bans on plastic shopping bags are rare and usually don’t work because in most cases, those effected by the ban employ avoidance strategies to get around the ban.
- Bans are often not related to removal of the bags from the market, but an effort to mandate a change to how the bag is manufactured. So occasionally, while a “ban” on ultra-thin plastic bags is mandated, thicker plastic bags are still on the market. Another example is that a few jurisidictions have “bans” on non-biodegradable plastic, because they want to force the market to manufacture the bags out of compostable or biodegradable plastic film. Plastic bags are still on the market, just made from different plastic materials.
Jurisdictions Mandating a Change in Bag Material
- Italy, France, Mexico City, Mauritius Island, Malta
Jurisdictions Mandating a Change in Bag Thickness (gauge)
- China, India, South Africa, Taiwan, Tanzania, South Australia
Types of Bans and their Relative Effectiveness
- Total bans are a top-down directive that attempts to force behaviour change through the complete elimination of bags by removing choice from the marketplace.
- Total bans fail unless they have the support of the local population; which otherwise, will find ways to avoid the ban.
- Total bans always have unintended consequences that prove detrimental to the environment, local economy, retailers, consumers and jobs.
- This type of bag ban abandons and undermines grassroots product stewardship principles and 3 R strategies to manage bags.
- Total bans require a serious and expensive enforcement regime to make them work.
- Total bans have failed in Bangladesh, Somalia, Tanzania, and The Republic of Somaliland because of non-compliance.
- Rwanda appears to be the only jurisdiction where a total ban has worked. They have succeeded because they have the complete support of the local population which is trying to rebuild after a devastating civil war; it is a very small jurisdiction, and they have heavy enforcement.
Using bans as an economic development policy tool to strengthen the local economy and create jobs
- Few countries have mandated total bans on plastic shopping bags. Often what is positioned as a ban is not a ban at all.
- The intent of the supposed ban is not to remove or eliminate plastic bags as a carry device from the market so consumers cannot use them, but to modify production of the bag so that it creates and supports local jobs and local manufacturing. Plastic shopping bags are still on the market being used by retailers and consumers, but the type of plastic used in the bag has been changed.
- Good examples are Italy and France, which are reported to have banned or eliminated the use of plastic shopping bags. Both France and Italy decided to ban the use of non-biodegradable plastic in the manufacture of the bags. They did not ban the bags although it was reported that they implemented a total ban on plastic bags.
- In France, the government mandated the use of biodegradable plastic bags made from vegetable matter in order to support their local agriculture community because production subsidies through the EU's common agricultural policy are progressively declining. The bags are still being manufactured and used in France, but they are made using biodegradable plastic film.
- Another example is Italy which mandated the use of certified compostable resin bags in order to support Italy’s growing bioplastics industry. Plastic shopping bags have not been eliminated and are still being used by retailers and consumers.
Banning ultra-thin plastic bags while bags of a heavier gauge are still on the market
- In some countries, bans target ultra-thin plastic bags (i.e. thin gauge) but not on thicker plastic bags of a heavier gauge. In those countries, bags are still in use, but it is still promoted as a ban on bags.
- Examples include China, which has banned all plastic shopping bags thinner than 20 microns (or 0.022 millimetres in thickness), India (50 microns).
- In South Australia and South Africa, bags with a minimum thickness of 30 microns and above are allowed because of litter concerns about lighter bags which can be more easily blown about by the wind if discarded.
Banning plastic bags in favour of paper bags
- In some jurisdictions, bans on plastic bags are introduced with the paper bag mandated as the alternative. These are sometimes accompanied with fees on the paper bags at check out.
- Multiple studies conducted globally prove that paper bags are more harmful to the environment than plastic bags, both in their manufacturing and resource use impact.
- These kinds of bans ignore the importance of trees to the health of the planet.
- According to the California Energy Commission’s facts on saving energy, a single 15-year-old tree provides the materials needed to manufacture only 700 paper bags, which a large grocery store has the potential to use in half a day.2
- Because strong paper fibres are needed for strength to carry the heavy load of groceries, most Kraft paper grocery bags in Canada are made from virgin material plus wood chips and shavings from logging operations (source: PPEC - Understanding Recycled Content).
- One of the unintended consequences of this type of ban is that the switch to paper bags creates a mountain of waste and generates significantly more greenhouse gases than plastic shopping bags.
- Paper bags are about seven times heavier, weighing about 55 grams, compared to plastic bags at eight grams. That is why Taiwan rescinded its ban on plastic shopping bags in 2006 and replaced it with a recycling model.
Banning non-biodegradable plastic bags in favour of biodegradable plastic bags
- Many decisions to ban plastic bags are not made based on science, but misconceptions about the environment. The result is that decisions can actually end up causing unintended negative environmental impacts if the right materials are not used in the right applications.
- Plastic bag manufacture is the result of advances in modern technology which began in the 1970s to prevent the cutting of trees. Those advances continue today. One of the technology innovations is the development of different types of plastic resins/ films such as biodegradables and compostables; of which, there are a myriad of different types which are used in medicine, for municipal organics collections programs and in agriculture, where these products perform well for specific applications.
- However, some jurisdictions worldwide have sought to switch to biodegradable plastic bags and ban non-biodegradable plastic bags because they believe that biodegradables are better for the environment and will help to solve a bag litter or a landfill problem. They in fact create a larger landfill problem because the biodegradables at the end of their useful life have to be discarded as garbage and end up in landfill.
- The problem with biodegradable plastic bags is that have a greater environmental impact. They cannot be recycled and kill the recycling of all plastic film which includes bread and milk bags, dry cleaning bags etc. The biodegradable bags become a contaminant because it is too costly and complicated to sort them. So the result is that ALL of the plastic film and bags – the entire stream -- ends up in landfill because it cannot be recycled.
- When San Francisco banned plastic bags in large supermarkets and pharmacies in 2007, they allowed biodegradable plastic bags as an option. The result was that plastic film recyclers were forced at the time to boycott all plastic bags and film being put into the waste stream by residents. So instead of being recycled, it ended up in landfill.
Are Bans Effective? – A Perspective
1. Many decisions to ban plastic shopping bags are made for the wrong reasons -- based on misconceptions about what’s good for the environment and without full analysis or understanding of their intended and unintended consequences. Many decisions to ban plastic shopping bags are made ahead of understanding their impact. The result is that the bans can end up being anti-environmental. Decisions made in the name of the environment should be based on science and fact, and full public discourse of the impacts economically, environmentally and socially.
- Many believe that all bags should biodegrade in landfill when in fact modern landfills are engineered to prevent degradation - to avoid the creation of greenhouse gases like methane which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Twenty percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by fugitive emissions from landfills.3
- There is also a perception, not based on science, that paper is better for the environment when in fact life cycle assessments show that plastic shopping bags are a better environmental alternative.
- According to the 2005 Scottish Government Report, the manufacture of paper grocery bags has a heavier environmental impact than the manufacture of plastic shopping bags.
- The manufacture of paper bags consumes 4 times more water than the manufacture of plastic bags; generates 3 times more greenhouse gases; and 2.7 times more solid waste than plastic bags. 4
2. Governments rarely mandate the total elimination of plastic shopping bags. Total ban attempts have been largely restricted to countries with ineffective waste management systems and where there is no or where recycling infrastructure (Bangladesh, India, Somalia, Rwanda).
- Where they have been attempted, they almost always fail with the exception of Rwanda.
- Most bans do not attempt to totally eliminate bags from the marketplace, but only mandate modifications to how the bag is made; the type of plastic used or the thickness of the bag. (Italy, France, China, Mexico City, India).
- Italy, for example, mandated the use of compostable plastic to support job creation in their bioplastics sector. The bags are still on the market being used by retailers and consumers, even though a “ban” is supposedly in effect.
3. There are no easy answers and no silver bullets. The idea of banning bags is an attempt to find a simple solution to a complex issue. Decisions to ban ignore how and why people use plastic shopping bags and their necessity for many aspects of daily living. Plastic shopping bags are multi-purpose, multi-use bags.
- There are many who think that forcing 100% conversion to reusable bags will completely eliminate plastic bags from the waste stream.
- However, the bags are needed to manage household waste.
- Householders will have to supplement their use of reusables with the purchase of kitchen catcher-type plastic bags which contain more plastic and are more expensive.
- Reusable bags would never be used as kitchen catchers for household waste because of their cost and their heavier material content. They serve one purpose -- as a carry bag.
- Conventional plastic shopping bags are multi-purpose bags used both as carry bags and to manage household and pet waste (in Toronto, organics recycling as well).
- Reuse rates for conventional plastic bags are between 40-60%. Even if 100% of the population switched to reusables, there will still be plastic bags in the waste system which will have to be managed by municipalities.
4. A ban is a top-down directive that attempts to force a sudden and abrupt change in consumer behaviour. It almost always fails because it eliminates consumer choice and is not voluntary. Changes in consumer behaviour are gradual, take time, and require considerable awareness building and public education.
- Bans almost always fail when they eliminate choice and don’t have the support of the local population. If a ban does not have the buy-in of those affected, this leads to ban avoidance strategies with consumers looking for ways to get around the ban. (India, China, most African countries)
- In a number of jurisdictions, avoidance strategies are quite common such as bootleg bags, civil disobedience, and shopping outside the ban area.
- This is true in both third world and industrialized countries. A recent US study by the National Centre for Policy Analysis (NCPA) of a July 2011 bag ban in LA County suggests that some shoppers in LA County shopped elsewhere to avoid the ban.
- The study found that on average, stores outside the ban area saw a 3.2% increase in sales while stores inside the ban witnessed a drop of 3.3%, and reported employee layoffs.5
5. Key learning from experience around the world shows that local solutions are essential. If the bag ban does not meet local needs, socio-economic priorities and fit into their way of life, bans don’t work.
- This is why bag bans have failed repeatedly in India, in Africa, and Taiwan. Even in China which has a strong enforcement regime in place, there is widespread disobedience of the ban.
- In many countries, people simply cannot afford the reusables or the alternative doesn’t meet local needs.
- For example, in 2005, Somalia and the Republic of Somaliland banned plastic bags to force the use of baskets, containers made of reed, straw and sisal, but the bans have been ignored.
- Residents, not only could not afford the alternatives, but apparently, plastic bags are essential in the local khat trade. (Khat is a plant stimulant chewed by many Somalis and usually sold wrapped in the plastic bags to protect the plant, which is highly perishable, from the dry, hot temperatures of the area).
- In fish eating nations, the use of paper bags is deemed unacceptable because the bags break.
6. Reduction strategies that encourage gradual change in consumer behaviour are far more effective in managing and reducing the use of plastic shopping bags because they offer consumers choice, are designed to educate, and build public awareness. They are voluntary approaches that allow consumers to opt in or opt out. Reduction strategies have been successful in Canada, United Kingdom and Wales.
- Reduction strategies are designed to persuade and to educate, not dictate.
- These strategies recognize and build on the complexity of bag usage, consumer needs, and the necessity for bags for impulse purchases and to manage household waste. (50% - 60% of bag usage is non-carry bag activity.)
- This makes wholesale avoidance strategies unnecessary because they leave the choice up to the consumer.
- Reduction strategies include a wide and complex range of product stewardship activities focused on the 3 R’s to shape and encourage change in consumer behaviour.
- Some of the activities include conversion to reusable bags, retailer in-store programs to reduce the number of non-essential bags used at checkout (fees, do you need a bag programs, in-store recycling).
- Reduction strategies focus not just on reduction, but wise use – the reuse and recycling to encourage responsible use and minimize litter impacts.
- The Ontario and Quebec Governments Voluntary 50% Reduction Programs achieved solid reductions in numbers of bags handed out at check out over 3 years; - 68% and 52% respectively.
- They provide ample evidence of the effectiveness of reduction strategies to change consumer behaviour over a relatively short period of time.
7. Bag bans always have consequences – intended and unintended – which should be examined carefully so that they are clearly understood. A plastic bag ban can have negative environmental impacts when alternatives are not environmentally sound.
- It is important to understand that all bags have environmental impacts.
- Even reusables can be bad for the environment if they are not reused often enough. For example, according to a 2011 UK Environment Agency Life Cycle Assessment, a cotton bag must be reused 131 times to match the environment impact of a conventional plastic bag used just once. And then, there is the fact that reusables are not recyclable in Canada and will end up in landfill at the end of their useful life.
- Another example, relates to the negative impact of a switch to paper bags from plastic in the fast food sector in Taiwan in 2001. In early 2006, Taiwan rescinded a 4.5 year ban on plastic bags because the switch to paper had created a “mountain of waste” and generated significant increases in greenhouse gases. Paper bags are 5 to 7 times heavier than plastic bags.
- In a 2006 survey by the Taiwan Environment Quality Protection Foundation, 59 percent of respondents said that "restricted use of plastic bags" is a failed policy. In response, Taiwan lifted the ban and moved to recycling.
8. Bans on bags to reduce litter have little to no impact on litter reduction.
- This is largely because litter is a people problem, not a material problem. The reasons for failure vary around the world.
- In many industrialized jurisdictions, bans to address litter fail because plastic bags are such a small part – almost negligible part of the total litter stream that the ban has no impact and more importantly, it ignores the larger litter problem – the other 99% of litter.
- For example, in Ireland, plastic bags were only 0.75% of the litter stream when they imposed their bag tax (de facto ban). After 8 years of the bag tax, bag litter had dropped only slightly 6
- In Toronto, Canada, the 2012 Litter Audit found only plastic shopping bags only 0.8% of litter. A ban will have absolutely no impact. 7
- In developing nations like India and many countries in Africa, litter is a by-product of ineffective or non-existent waste management, stewardship or recycling systems.
- Here bags are targeted with bans in an effort to avoid the capital expense/investment in building an effective waste management system. It is interesting to note that revenue from South Africa’s bag tax is funnelled directly into building a recycling infrastructure for the bags.
9. Bag bans are not necessary in countries where there is a strong commitment to product stewardship (the 3 Rs). In these cases, bans send a signal that undermines individual responsibility. We know that reduction strategies are far more effective in managing plastic shopping bags than bans in Canada.
- In Canada, there has been little identified need for bans. Canadians (consumers, retailers and the plastics industry) have a strong commitment to product stewardship. There has been high adoption of reusable bags; there is high reuse (40-60%); Canadians like to recycle their bags; and bags are not a litter or landfill problem.
- Canadians have developed local solutions that recognize individual choice and the support for 3R’s programs that are sustainable and supported by citizens.
- The retail sector in particular has shown a strong commitment to product stewardship, putting in place 3 R’s in-store programs to build awareness, reduce, educate and expedite recycling and conversion to reusables.
- The plastic bag industry and stewards have worked hard to put in place a successful national network of plastic bag recyclers and to pioneer new innovations in bag recycling to divert as many as possible from the waste stream.
- Canadians prefer voluntary approaches that give them freedom of choice. Retailer fees, while not popular, are voluntary. Government-led Voluntary 50% Reduction Programs have exceeded expectations in reducing the number of bags being distributed.
- The Ontario 50% reduction program achieved an almost 70% reduction in the number of plastic shopping bags distributed and the Province of Quebec 50% reduction program achieved a 52% reduction in the number of bags within 3 years; 2 years ahead of schedule. 8
- The result is that there have been few plastic bag bans enacted across the Canada because there has been no demonstrated need.
- There are only 7 bans largely in smaller communities.
- Two bag bans have been rescinded over the past few years at the local residents and business community request.
- The City of Toronto provides another example where strong 3R’s and product stewardship principles have eliminated municipal need for a ban. Plastic bags are 0.8% of total litter; 95% of the bags are reused or recycled.
4 Scottish Executive 2005 Environment Group Research Report 2005/06 - Proposed Plastic Bag Levy - Extended Impact Assessment Final Report Page 20 on kitchen catchers http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/57346/0016899.pdf
6 The National Litter Pollution Monitoring System, Litter Monitoring Body Annual Report for 2000/2001, February 2002, Pages 14 & 15 LITTER QUANTIFICATION SURVEYhttp://www.litter.ie/Website/2009%20Website/Annual%20Report%20Feb%202002.pdf
The 2011 National Litter Pollution Monitoring System, Litter Monitoring Body System Results 2011, The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government
7 2011 Toronto Litter Audit http://www.toronto.ca/litter/pdf/2006_toronto_litter_report.pdf