Fiction: The trend in Canada is to ban plastic shopping bags.
Fact: No. The trend in Canada has been to keep plastic shopping bags on the market, but use a number of product stewardship (3 Rs) strategies to reduce and manage their use and promote the adoption of reusable bags.
- Canadians (retailers, citizens and the plastics industry) have a strong commitment to product stewardship - the 3 Rs.
- In an early 2004/5 Decima Research Study, 92% of Canadians (93% in Ontario) had stated that they reuse and recycle their plastic shopping bags. This was confirmed in a more recent 2007 Decima Research Study which found that 77% of Canadians (79% in Ontario) reuse their bags. And in another Decima Research Study conducted in 2008, 60% of Canadians (and Ontarians) said that if given the choice, they would rather have certain food packaging recycled in the blue bin, than banned.
- Bag reuse rates range from 40-60% and recycling rates are healthy, ranging from 32% to over 50% of all plastic bags in circulation depending on the province or municipality.
- Retailers and grocers have implemented a number of highly successful stewardship programs on bags that have built awareness and led to reductions in the number of bags distributed. Some of these are in-store recycling, better bagging practices, bag fees, sale of reusables. Each year, retailers divert significant numbers of bags from municipal waste streams across the country through in-store recycling programs.
- The plastics industry as well, is deeply committed to product stewardship. It has worked hard to develop new recycling technologies, pioneered unique bag-to-bag recycling programs, and it promoted the development of a national network of plastic bag and film recyclers. The bags are recycled and remanufactured locally into new products like new bags, plastic lumber, water pipes, outdoor furniture.
- From a Canadian public policy perspective, the trend has been toward collaborative, voluntary, non-legislated approaches with private sector involvement. These collaborations between government and private sector have been driven by memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with all parties voluntarily agreeing to goals and being very effective.
- Over the past five years, over 100 governments and associations in Canada have investigated the effectiveness of bans and taxes as reduction strategies and, based on scientific evidence and consumer attitudes, have found that other 3 R approaches to managing plastic bags are more effective and that bans are not necessary.
Why are bans not necessary?
Not a litter or landfill problem
- Plastic bags are such a small part of the litter stream and landfill problem (less than 1%) that banning them has no appreciable impact on litter reduction.
Bags are a necessity
- Bags are not just a convenience, but a necessity to manage household and pet waste. Bags also provide a real solution to organics recycling in the City of Toronto. In other words, plastic bags will continue to be part of the municipal waste stream even if plastic bags are eliminated at check out. And it will cost residents even more to dispose of their waste because plastic kitchen catchers and garbage bags are more expensive.
The alternatives to plastic bags are not better
- Alternative, shorter life bags (i.e. paper) are not as environmentally friendly as plastic bags. This alternative will lead to the unnecessary cutting of trees, and will add more tonnage to municipal waste streams because paper bags are so much heavier than plastic bags (55 grams versus 8 grams average). (See section on Paper versus Plastic). And their durability for re-use is significantly lower than plastic bags, which further compounds their higher environmental impact.
- The use of post consumer recycled paper to make paper grocery bags is not a viable option because of strength issues. Virgin paper fibres are required to avoid bag breakage from the heavy loads of groceries that could be placed in the bags.
- If recycled paper is used, it will lead to double bagging and twice the use/waste.
- When the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) switched from plastic to paper bags, the initial bags contained 100% recycled paper content, but did not perform well with heavier loads, so the recycled paper content was modified. The four bottle bag is now made from 100% virgin paper to deal with the added weight. The one and two bottle bags are made with 35-40% recycled paper content.
Economic Impacts on Jobs
- Some provincial and municipal governments are also mindful of the significant employment in Canada in not only the plastics sector, but in plastic bag manufacturing. When crafting their public policy strategies around plastic bags, they seek to find balance and work collaboratively with the industry to achieve their goals.
- Ontario is the third largest hub for plastics manufacturing in North America, behind Ohio and California.
- In the province of Ontario alone, 10,900 people work directly in plastic bag and film manufacturing; 50% of that is in the Toronto area.
- This employment would be seriously undermined by less balanced approaches to bag management like bans. (See section on Made in Canada)
Strategies to Manage and Reduce the Number of Bags (also see section on Reduction)
1. Voluntary Provincial Reduction Strategies achieve 50%+ reductions
2. Bag Fees are highly effective
3. Bag Bans are not standard public policy because bags are necessary and the public does not accept total bans
1. Voluntary Provincial Government Reduction Strategies – Highly Successful
- A number of provinces have put in place voluntary 50% reduction targets on bag usage (typically, over a five year period). Manitoba, B.C. (retailer initiated), Ontario and Quebec. The Ontario and Quebec programs achieved their targets within three years as consumers converted to reusable bags.
- The Ontario 50% Reduction Program achieved a province-wide reduction in per-capita consumption of 68%.1
- The Quebec 50% Reduction Program achieved a 52% reduction two years ahead of schedule.2
- Retailer bag fees have been very effective in curtailing usage on a voluntary basis. Large grocery retailers report reductions in bag demand as high as 70%.
- Only two municipalities in Canada have passed bag fee by-laws forcing retailers to charge for bags. Both were rescinded after three years.
- Orillia, ON – rescinded its bag fee by-law after reaching a 40-50% reusable bag adoption rate. The fees were unpopular with retailers and residents as they came to be seen as punitive. Given the high level of conversion to reusable bags, the city decided that the by-law had achieved its goal and should be rescinded.
- Toronto, ON– rescinded its by-law after achieving a 53% reduction in the number of bags distributed. The fee by-law was rescinded because retailers indicated that they would continue to charge the fee with or without the by-law. Council then voted to ban bags entirely.
- Governments at all levels in Canada have tended to opt for more effective, voluntary product stewardship strategies, focused on the 3 Rs and individual responsibility.
- These voluntary policies recognize that plastic shopping bags are not a major component of litter and that the bags are not just a convenience, but a necessity to manage household waste.
- A ban will not eliminate bags from the waste system. And a switch to plastic kitchen catchers which contain up to 76% more plastic, or to paper which is 5 to 7 times heavier, will add more tonnage to the waste system, and result in more, not less, environmental impact.
- A move to reusable bags reduces the number of plastic shopping bags used as carry bags, but it does not eliminate the need for plastic bags to manage household waste, pet waste or organics because residents have to supplement their reusable bag usage with plastic kitchen catchers.
Retailer-Initiated Reduction Program
3. Bag Bans are Not Standard Public Policy (also see Bans Don't Work)