Plastic Bags

Myths: Fact or Fiction

Degrade in Landfill Myth

The Single Use Myth

Recycling

Paper vs. Plastic Bags


Paper vs. Plastic Studies

Reusables Greener?

Types of Bags

Litter: The Facts
Public Health

Canada Update

Bags Around the World

The Oil Myth

Made in Canada
Ireland's Bag Tax

Plastic Bag Myths: Fact or Fiction


1. Degrade in Landfill Myth
(see section on Degrade in Landfill)

Fiction: Bags should degrade in landfill and not last thousands of years.

Fact: No. In a properly engineered landfill, nothing is meant to degrade. No bag – reusable or conventional plastic shopping bag – will decompose in landfill. which actually helps the environment by not producing dangerous greenhouse gases like methane.

This myth is based on a common misunderstanding of the purpose of landfills and how they work. Modern landfills are engineered to entomb waste and prevent decomposition, which creates harmful greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

Even so, there is still some anaerobic decay causing fugitive emissions. In Canada, according to Environment Canada, landfills are still responsible for 20% of national methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, in terms of its global warming potential (GWP).

2. The Litter Myth (see section on Litter)

Fiction: In Canada, plastic shopping bags are a serious litter problem.  

 Fact: No. Plastic shopping bags represent a fraction of 1% of all litter.

While litter may be a serious problem in some countries, plastic shopping bags are not considered a litter problem in Canada. In Canada, plastic shopping bags are a miniscule component of the municipal litter stream.

Litter audit data from major Canadian municipalities shows that plastic shopping bags are less than 1% of litter. The City of Toronto 2012 Litter Audit shows that plastic shopping bags were 0.8% of the entire litter stream.

Focus on the less than 1% of plastic bag litter does not address the other 99% of litter. Litter is a people problem, not a litter problem. Even if you removed all plastic shopping bag litter, 99 % of the litter would still be a problem.

3. Are Bags a Large Part of the Waste Stream? (see section on Degrade in Landfill Myth)

Fiction: Plastic shopping bags are a large part of the waste stream and landfill. 

Fact: No. There are a number of diversion strategies used by municipalities based on the 3Rs to divert bags from the waste stream. Plastic bags generally comprise less than 1% of landfill. In Toronto, they represent 0.6% of the waste stream.

Municipal waste audits show that plastic shopping bags are a not a large part of landfill or the waste entering municipal waste systems. Because they are so lightweight, plastic bags represent a very small fraction of landfill – less than 1%.

The 2006 Waste Audit for the City of Toronto, for example, shows that plastic shopping bags are only 0.6% of the City’s waste stream, with even less ending up in landfill because 15% of those available after reuse in the City’s green bin organics program (44% of bags are reused to recycle organics). are recycled in the blue bin.

Canadians have a strong commitment to reuse and recycling which helps to divert many of the bags from the waste stream. Recycling rates in other provinces like BC and Atlantic Canada divert even more bags because they are based on take-back to retail programs.

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4. Bags are Only a Convenience, not a Necessity (see section on Single Use)

Fiction: Plastic shopping bags are just a convenience for impulse shopping and are not necessary.

Fact: Conventional plastic shopping bags are not just a convenience, but a necessity. Plastic shopping bags are multi-use/multi-purpose bags with a shorter life. They are used not just as carry bags for groceries, but are essential – reused to help manage household and pet waste.

They are not just a convenience to carry groceries, but a necessity playing an important role to facilitate impulse purchases and for the management of household and pet waste; and in Toronto, organics collection. They have very high alternate use rate in Ontario of 59.1% (Ontario MOE (data).

A move to reusable bags will not eliminate the need for shorter-life bags. Householders will have to supplement their use of reusable bags with a paper or kitchen catcher type bags for household and pet waste.  In Ireland, the virtual elimination of plastic bags because of a high bag tax, led to a 77% increase in the purchase of kitchen catchers which contain up to 76% more plastic than conventional plastic bags and a 21% increase in plastics consumed. The fact they are a necessity is reinforced by Decima Research which shows that 76% of Canadians would purchase kitchen catchers if plastic shopping bags are not available at retail check outs.

 5. Are Reusable Bags Greener? (see section on Reusables are Greener)

Fiction: Reusables are “greener”. They are better for the environment than conventional plastic shopping bags.

Fact: Not necessarily. All bags have environmental impacts and it depends on the bag, how it is used, and most importantly, how often it is used. Reusables are not quite as green as most people think.

Reusable bags or longer-life bags are not necessarily greener, unless they are reused many times and as frequently as intended. On a life cycle basis, stronger, heavier bags made to last longer, no matter what material they are made from, will have a greater environmental impact because they use more resources in their production.

A complicating factor is that reusables are not recyclable in Canada, which weakens their environmental effectiveness. Because reusables are often made of multiple materials, to add strength and durability, the bags must be deconstructed in the recycling process. This makes recycling time intensive and cost-prohibitive, and it means that the bags end up in landfill at the end of their life.

Conventional plastic shopping bags,- on the other hand, are highly recyclable in Canada because there is a strong recycling network across the country. Recycling rates are quite high in most provinces. 

Are reusable bags greener than conventional plastic bags? The answer to this question centres on the function of each type of bag: whether they are multi-purpose versus longer-life bags.

Almost all bags are reusable; even the conventional plastic shopping bag has a reuse rate of between 40-60% in Canada.

Reusables are designed to have a longer life and one purpose, as a carry bag. These longer-life bags offer real potential to reduce the need for conventional shorter-life plastic bags to carry groceries, but they would never be used to manage household waste. Consumers still have to purchase lighter-weight plastic bags to supplement their use of reusables. 

Conventional plastic shopping bags, on the other hand, are multi-purpose/multi-use bags and are designed for shorter life. They are used to carry groceries, offer convenience for impulse purchases, and are a necessity -- reused to manage household, organics and pet waste.

The use of reusables will not eliminate the need for conventional plastic bags or reduce the number of plastic bags householders use to manage their waste in the grey or green bins.

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 6. Is Paper Better than Plastic? (see section on Paper versus Plastic Bags)

Fiction: Many believe that paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they are made from a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and are recyclable. 

Fact: Plastic shopping bags outperform paper bags environmentally – on manufacturing, on reuse, and on solid waste volume and generation.

Study after study shows that conventional plastic bags are better for the environment because they have a much lower carbon footprint than paper bags.

Life Cycle Assessments (LCA’s) also show that the manufacture of paper grocery bags has a heavier environmental impact than the manufacture of plastic shopping bags. According to the Scottish Government 2005 Report on Plastic Shopping Bags, the manufacture of paper bags consumes four times more water than the manufacture of plastic bags; paper generates three times more greenhouse gases; and almost three times more solid waste than plastic bags.

The most significant and immediate impact of a switch from plastic to paper is the impact on municipal solid waste streams—the additional volume and tonnage from paper grocery bags which are heavier than plastic. The typical plastic shopping bag weighs eight grams, while the Kraft paper bag weighs 55 grams.

This means that paper generates seven times more waste and increases recycling costs seven-fold. It also generates significantly more greenhouse gases because of the increased number of trucks needed to transport and recover the bags.

7. Is Banning Bags Better for the Environment? (see section on Bans Don't Work)

Fiction: Banning plastic shopping bags works. They totally eliminate plastic bags from the marketplace. Bans have no negative environmental consequences and will solve an array of environmental concerns.

 Fact: No. Most bans fail for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is that they most often do not have the popular support of the local population who then find ways to avoid the ban. Other 3 R reduction strategies are far more effective; in particular, voluntary reduction, reuse and recycling programs in changing consumer behaviour.

A scan of bans around the world shows that bans don’t work. They don’t deliver an environmental benefit, a social benefit, or a jobs benefit. Other reduction strategies are far more effective in reducing the use of conventional plastic shopping bags, particularly when they offer consumers choice and are voluntary.

Bans work under the auspices of different strategies. Although advertised as a ban, some governments have only imposed changes at the manufacturing level on how the bags are made - a change in gauge/thickness or in materials used. The bag has been supposedly banned, but is still on the market. Italy, France and Mexico City have bag “bans” that are based on a move to compostable plastic or bioplastics. China, India and most African nations have specified a thicker gauge, a minimum thickness for the bags. In all cases, plastic bags are still on the market just modified in some way.

The main reason for the failure of bans is that bans are top-down directives that usually lack the support of the local population. In some countries, local populations cannot afford the alternatives. In those cases, avoidance strategies are employed by residents even when there is a strong enforcement regime, which is rare (e.g. India, China, South Africa, Somalia, Mexico City, Tanzania).

In the end, it comes down to a collective commitment to product stewardship - the 3 Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) by the population and retailers, and voluntary initiatives to see any real change in bag usage and consumer behaviour. In Canada, for instance, bans have not been seen as necessary because of a strong commitment to product stewardship principles -- reduce, reuse, recycle. As well, bags are not a serious litter problem.

Bans to reduce litter often have little impact. Plastic shopping bags are such a small part of the litter and waste streams that their total elimination will have no appreciable impact on overall litter reduction.

From an environmental perspective, limiting consumer choice on bags not only does not work, but has a number of unintended negative consequences—“disbenefits”, according a former UK Minister of the Environment. Bag bans often result in higher resource use, more waste, more greenhouse gases, and higher municipal waste costs.

A good example is Taiwan, which rescinded a ban on plastic shopping bags in their quick service food sector because it had the unintended consequence of creating a massive increase in waste as retailers switched to paper bags. Taiwan rescinded its bag ban in 2006 in favour of recycling

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8. Are Bags Made in Canada? (see section Made in Canada)  

Fiction: 90% of the plastic bags used in Canadian grocery stores are not made in Canada, but China.

Fact: No. 90% of the plastic bags used by Canadian grocery stores are made locally.

Plastic bag manufacturing is a vibrant business in Canada employing thousands of Canadians, There is a large concentration of family-run, plastic bag manufacturing companies in Ontario, with 50% located in the Toronto area and 50% in smaller communities across the province.

This is the same in the United States, where the industry reports that 72.5% of plastic shopping bags are made in the U.S. and not off-shore.

However, 90% of reusable bags are made off-shore in countries like China.

9. Are Bags Recycled in Canada? (see section on Recycling)

Fiction: Plastic shopping bags are not recycled in Canada, or have very low recycling rates.

  Fact: Recycling rates for plastic shopping bags are very high across the country. Canadians are deeply committed to recycling and the bags are recycled and remanufactured locally into new bags, outdoor furniture, water pipes, flooring, office supplies and plastic lumber.

Canada has a strong national network of recyclers for plastic shopping bags – large and small. The large players are Merlin in Western Canada, EFS in Ontario, RCM Group in Quebec, and Inteplast in Atlantic Canada. 32% of the bags are recycled in BC and Alberta; 36% in Ontario and rates are even higher in the Atlantic Provinces.

The bags are recycled through a combination of blue box systems, take-back-to-retail and bag-to-bag programs. Canadians have been innovators and technology leaders in this area. The bags in Canada are recycled and remanufactured locally creating valuable green manufacturing jobs. Canadians – consumers and retailers – have a strong commitment to product stewardship with retailers recycling close to 50% of the bags distributed and the rest is recycled through municipalities.

Toronto’s Western Beach’s boardwalk is a plastic lumber boardwalk, made from 32 million recycled plastic shopping bags.

10. Are Bags Really Just "Single-Use"? (see section on Single Use) 

Fiction: Conventional plastic shopping bags provided by grocery and convenience stores are "single-use", used only once as a carry-out bag.

Fact: No. Conventional plastic bags are multi-purpose and multi-use. They meet all sorts of daily requirements, and are a necessity for managing household and pet waste.  

There really is no such thing as a single use plastic shopping bag. The conventional plastic shopping bag is a multi-use/multi-purpose bag, with a shorter life than a bag-for-life or reusable. Canadians are highly committed to responsible use, and the bags have high reuse and recycling rates coast to coast. In fact, 40-60% of conventional plastic bags are reused at least once.

Beyond their use as a tote to transport groceries, plastic shopping bags serve an important secondary purpose to help manage household and pet waste, and in some municipalities like Toronto, to recycle organics.

The term “single-use” does not reflect the reality of market usage patterns or the attitudes and preferences of Canadians. Conventional bags, not used for household garbage, are recycled in blue box and take-back to retail programs (B.C. and Alberta -32%, Ontario -35.7%, Atlantic Canada – as high as 50%). Recycled bags are remanufactured into new bags, plastic lumber, water pipes, outdoor furniture, and office supplies, here in Canada.

11. The Made From Oil Myth (see section on Oil Myth)

Fiction: Canada's plastic shopping bags are made from oil, are a waste of oil, and oil is a non-renewable resource.

  Fact:  In Canada, plastic shopping bags are primarily made from a by-product of natural gas production, ethane.

Polyethylene bags are made out of ethane, a component of natural gas. Ethane is extracted to lower the BTU value of the gas in order to meet pipeline and gas utility specifications and so that the natural gas doesn’t burn too hot when used as fuel in our homes or businesses. The ethane is converted, and its BTU value is “frozen” into a solid form (polyethylene) using a catalytic process to make a plastic shopping bag.

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