Reduction Strategies and Their Effectiveness
- Adoption of reusable bags
- Voluntary reduction programs
- Bag fees at check out
- Bag taxes legislated by governments at retail or at the manufacturing and import level
- Bag bans – outright bans, material substitution, minimum gauge requirements
- Retail bag product stewardship initiatives
- The adoption of reusable bags, as an alternative to conventional plastic shopping bags, has been effective in many jurisdictions to change consumer behaviour and reduce the use of conventional plastic bags to carry groceries. Adoption is voluntary and at the discretion of the consumer. Conventional plastic bags are usually offered as an option and consumers make a choice. This helps build trial and experience with reusables.
- Reusable bags are widely promoted as a “green” choice and in Canada, are often distributed free of charge as a promotional item by organizations of all types. Retailers in Canada have been very effective in offering consumers reusable bag options.
- In Canada, reusable bags have been widely embraced. In a survey conducted in July 2011, by the Silverhill Institute of Environmental Research and Conservation, Toronto residents indicated that 58% had adopted reusable bags.1
- Recyc-Quebec, a Quebec government environment agency, reports that 13.5 million reusable bags had been purchased in the Province of Quebec as of January, 2011 (source: Le Journal de Montreal).
- This reduction strategy has been led by private sector retailers. It is a highly effective tool to help change consumer behaviour. It helps build awareness of reuse and educates consumers on the 3 Rs.
Limitations on Use of Reusable Bags
- If reusable bags are to be effective in reducing the number of conventional plastic bags in the stream, they must be reused multiple times to deliver the same environmental benefit as a conventional plastic shopping bag, used just once.
- A 2011 UK Environment Agency Life Cycle Assessment showed that a reusable cotton or canvas bag had to be used 131 times to match the environmental impact of a plastic shopping bag, used just once. A plastic bag-for-life (LDPE) had to be reused five times. A non-woven polypropylene bag had to be reused 14 times to match the environmental benefit a conventional plastic bag, used once.
Changing consumer behaviour takes time
- While reusable bags are popular, many users do not use a reusable bag every time they shop because they forget the bag. Also reusable bags are not an option for consumers to manage household and pet waste. Here plastic bags remain a necessity. (Source: Wall Street Journal, “An Inconvenient Bag” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122238422541876879.html)
Reusable bags will not eliminate the need for conventional plastic bags for household waste and unexpected purchases
- A reusable bag would never be used as a bin liner. Reusables are designed for one purpose: as a carry bag. Conventional plastic shopping bags, on the other hand, are multi-purpose, multi-use bags. They are used both as a carry bag and to manage household waste, organics and pet waste. Conventional plastic shopping bags have a very high reuse rate in Canada. Ontario Ministry of the Environment data shows a 59% reuse rate of the bags.
Reusable bags are not recyclable in Canada
- There is a wide range of reusable bag options on the market. They are heavier and more durable bags, constructed for longer life and often use different materials to give the bag added strength.
- Although advertised in many cases as recyclable, reusable bags are not being recycled in Canada. Because they are made from different materials to make them stronger and more durable, the recycling of reusable bags is complicated, time intensive, and costly. The bags have to be deconstructed in the recycling process to separate the different materials.
- As a consequence, Canada does not recycle reusable bags. This means that millions of reusable bags, currently displacing conventional plastic shopping bags, will end up in landfill at the end of their useful life. (Le Journal de Montreal)
- A review of voluntary reduction approaches to reduce the number of plastic shopping bags being distributed in different jurisdictions suggests that voluntary strategies can work when there is consumer buy-in, an acceptable bag alternative that meets local needs, and collective commitment to product stewardship.
- These voluntary initiatives are usually led by governments in the form of sustained programs or short-term activities. For example, in 2006, China ran a voluntary No Plastic Bag Day, which led to a 40% reduction in plastic bag use.
- In most instances, success is predicated on retailer leadership and commitment.
In Canada, Voluntary Approaches are Very Successful
- From a public policy perspective, the trend in Canada has been toward collaborative, voluntary, non-legislated approaches with private sector involvement (working with retailers and the plastics industry). At the municipal level, efforts have focused on reduction, reuse and recycling. At the provincial level, 50% reduction targets have been put in place.
- Voluntary approaches to manage and reduce plastic shopping bag usage in Canada have been highly effective, driven by a deep commitment by Canadians (citizens, retailers, municipalities, and industry) to product stewardship (the 3Rs) and individual responsibility. Consumer behaviour in Canada is strongly supportive of reduction, reuse and recycling and freedom of choice.
- Most voluntary collaborations between government and private sector have been driven by memoranda of understanding (MOUs), with all parties agreeing to goals.
Provincial 50% Reduction Programs are Highly Successful
- Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba have identified reduction targets on bag usage. In BC, retailers initiated their own province-wide program. The call has been for voluntary reduction in bag usage by 50%, typically over a five year period.
- The 50% reduction programs have been highly successful. Central to success has been:
- Public education and awareness-building of responsible use
- Consumer adoption and conversion in large numbers to reusable bags, which displaces demand for conventional plastic shopping bags as carry bags
- Retailer commitment to staff training, in-store promotion and at-check-out programs to educate consumers
- Retailer diversion programs, including in-store take-back and bag-to-bag recycling programs.
- Ontario's 50% Reduction Program: In May 2007, the Ontario Plastic Bag Reduction Task Group was formed to respond to a provincial government initiative to reduce the number of carry-out plastic bags distributed in Ontario by 50% by 2012.
- The 2008/2009 Progress Report shows that the program achieved a 58% reduction in the number of bags distributed, exceeding its 50% target. A year later, Ontario reported a province-wide reduction in per-capita consumption of 69.6%, together with a reduction of 68.4% in gross generation1 (Ontario Plastic Bag Reduction Task Force).
- Quebec's 50% Reduction Program2 3: This program achieved a 52% reduction across the entire retail sector, two years ahead of the 2012 expiry. In 2008, retailers and the plastics industry established the Voluntary Code of Best Practices for the Use of Shopping Bag with the government of Quebec. It set a goal of reducing by 50% the use of plastic bags in the province by 2012.
- A new study by the Ministère du Développement durable, de l'Environnement et des Parcs (MDDEP) shows that, by 2010, the 50% target had already been exceeded with a 52% reduction of bags across the entire retail sector. This was due to voluntary participation by retailers who encouraged their customers to use reusable canvas bags by charging $0.05 per plastic bag.
The United Kingdom has seen Mixed Success
- As in Canada, retailers in the United Kingdom have shown a strong commitment to supporting their customers in reducing the use of carrier bags as part of broader policies on reducing packaging and waste.
- In 2009, the UK Government and British Retail Consortium (BRC) announced a public education campaign to encourage consumers to reuse carrier bags. One such was called ‘Get a Bag Habit’. Major retailer, Tesco, reported in 2009 that it had halved plastic bag distribution using a green loyalty point program which rewarded customers who bring a reusable.
- The British Retail Consortium (BRC) and its supermarket members also had a voluntary agreement with the Scottish Government, the UK Defra, the Welsh Assembly Government, and the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment. The target was set in 2006 to reduce thin-gauge carrier bags by 50%, by Spring 2009.
- The target was narrowly missed with a 48% reduction in numbers of bags for the UK, and a 51% reduction in the amount of virgin polymer consumed between 2006 and 2011.
- In markets where the target was not met, the local government introduced legislation for a per-bag charge. Wales introduced their fee in late 2011 and saw an immediate decrease in bag consumption. However, in Wales, there was a sharp increase in the number of bags-for-life purchased (+142%). Considering the weight of bags, the increase in bags for life in Wales was two-thirds of the reduction in weight of the thinner-gauge bags.
Australia has Reported Limited Success
- Between 2003-2005, the Government of Australia Environment Protection and Heritage Council adopted a voluntary approach to reduce plastic bags with a Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Bags with the Australian Retailers Association.
- Major retailers spent millions on the program and made considerable progress, but ultimately fell short of their target reductions and recycling rates. The Code required 90% and 25% participation rates for supermarkets and non-supermarkets, respectively, and set out a 50% reduction target and 50% recycling rate, to be achieved by the end of 2005.
- A reduction of 45% in the number of bags distributed was achieved, but a recycling rate of 14% fell short of the 50% target. And only 19% of non-supermarket stores signed onto the Code versus a target of 25%. The program was abandoned.
- Retailers and grocers in Canada have shown considerable leadership and product stewardship responsibility on the issue of plastic shopping bags. They have implemented a number of awareness and conversion programs to reduce the number of non-essential bags being distributed at check out.
- Retailers have been highly proactive at promoting the sale of reusable bags at check out. Many have their own branded bags. These are mainly plastic reusables, woven and non-woven polypropylene, polyester (recycled PET), and some cotton bags. The only limitations have been that the reusables are not recyclable in Canada and there are concerns about proper use to prevent bacterial cross-contamination of food if the reusables are not washed regularly.
- Retailers have also implemented their own staff training programs on carry bag advice, proper bagging techniques at check out (packing bags to their full capacity); take a bag when you need a bag, and no double bagging.
- Retail chains have been proactive on recycling and waste diversion with many stores offering take-back-to-retail and bag-to-bag programs for plastic shopping bags. This latter program has been very effective in B.C. and Atlantic Canada.
1. Promotion of Reusable Bags
2. In-store Programs to Reduce Bag Usage at Checkout
3. Diversion from the Municipal Waste Stream
- Taxes are always unpopular. Dependent on the size of the tax, bag taxes can act as de facto bans (Ireland). Countries with bag taxes include Belgium, Malta, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and South Africa. In some countries, consumers are charged directly at check out, as in Ireland. In other jurisdictions, like Denmark and Finland, retailers pay the government a levy on the amount of bags (paper and plastic) used either at the manufacturing level or import stage.
- As a strategy, taxes attempt to force consumers to suddenly modify their behaviour to stop using plastic shopping bags. They ignore their necessity and how and why consumers use the bags. While taxes can be effective in reducing usage at checkout, they force consumers to use alternatives for household waste, which can lead to higher resource use, more material in the waste stream, and result in negative environmental impacts. In Ireland, the bag tax led to a 94% reduction in bags at checkout, but resulted in a 77% increase in the purchase of heavier plastic kitchen catchers.
- Taxes are a top-down approach that undermines product stewardship and individual responsibility. Non-compliance is a common result. This has proven to be a serious problem in South Africa, leading to serious job loss impacts and avoidance strategies like bootleg bags.
- In some cases, taxes are used as fundraisers for environmental initiatives. For example, in 2010, Washington, D.C. implemented a $0.05 tax on paper or plastic carryout bags taken at the time of checkout. $0.04 of the tax goes to the city, while the retailer retains one cent to cover costs. It is a dedicated tax with funds being used for clean-up of the local Anacostia River. While bag usage declined by close to 50%, and was deemed a success, the diminished revenue from fewer bags consumed undermined the river clean-up.
- The most high profile bag tax is found in Ireland and it is often used by the City of Toronto as the best example of the effectiveness of a reduction strategy for plastic shopping bags.
- The objective was to use the tax to discourage bag use and ultimately litter, thus it targeted consumers at check out rather than retailers. In 2007, the tax was increased from 17 to 22 Euro cents and it keeps increasing because of consumer non-compliance.
- While there was a 94% decline in plastic shopping bags in Ireland, the tax had a number of other unintended consequences. One was a 77% increase in the sales of bin-liners (kitchen catchers) which contain up to 76% more plastic and there was an increase in the amount of paper bags used (+400%).
- The result was a massively increased amount of plastic consumed, and in the waste stream, in Ireland. Import data showed a 21% increase in the amount of plastic bags entering the country following imposition of the tax (Source: Her Majesty’s Customs Department Importation Statistics on all bags imported in Ireland) Irish Examiner – 2003/01/29: Shoppers still bagging plastic sales.
- The reduction in plastic bag litter was negligible, ranging from one quarter to three quarters of 1%.
- Click here for Litter Section; Ireland.
- Bag fees can be very effective in eliminating consumption of non-essential bags. Consumers purchase only the bags they need.
- Bag fees build awareness, educate, and promote wise use of bags at the consumer level. They also acknowledge the necessity for bags in everyday life by allowing consumer choice.
- Fee regimes on plastic shopping bags are usually voluntary and initiated by retailers, dependent on the type of relationship the retailer has with customers. Retailer-led fee strategies are evident in many countries around the world, including Germany, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Hungary, Portugal, The Netherlands, Norway, Wales, and Canada. From the retailer perspective, they make environmental and business sense.
- In Canada, when the City of Toronto rescinded its bag fee by-law, major grocery retailers and drug stores voluntarily chose to keep the bag fee in place, even though they were no longer mandated to do so.
- In some cases, bag fees are mandated by governments. Although this is a legislated approach, retailers are still allowed to keep the revenue from the fee. Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Bulgaria, and China, for example, mandate bag fees. In October 2011, Wales introduced a legal minimum charge of (EU) €0.05 for paper, biodegradable and plastic bags. Wales is encouraging fee donations to charitable causes.
- Bag fees appear to cut usage at least in half to only essential bags. When China introduced a bag fee in 2008, it reduced the number of bags used by 49%. The Cities of Toronto and Orillia, ON, passed by-laws to force retailers to charge for bags. In the case of Toronto, the fee led to a 53% reduction in bag usage. Click here for Toronto Report.
6. Bag Bans are Not Effective (Bans Don't Work)
- There are few bans around the world that call for the total elimination of plastic shopping bags and where they are legislated, they usually fail. Rwanda may be the sole exception.
- Most bans aren’t bans at all, but government mandated changes to how the bag is made -- changes to the type of plastic or thickness of the bag. Plastic bags are still on the market being used by retailers and consumers, but changed in some way. (Italy, France, Mexico City, China, India).
- The main reason for the failure of bans is that bans are top-down directives that try to force sudden and abrupt change in consumer behaviour by eliminating choice. This, in turn, undermines support for the ban by the local population who work to avoid the ban. In many cases, bans fail because the locals cannot afford the reusable or the alternative does not meet local needs. In these cases, avoidance strategies are employed by residents, even when there is a strong enforcement regime.
- From an environmental perspective, limiting consumer choice on bags not only does not work, but it has a number of unintended negative consequences, or “disbenefits”, according a former UK Minister of the Environment, Ben Bradshaw. This is because bag alternatives like paper carry greater and many more negative environmental impacts.
- Bag bans result in higher resource use, more waste, more greenhouse gases, and higher waste costs. A good
example is Taiwan which, in 2006, rescinded a ban on bags in their quick service food sector because it had the unintended consequence of causing a massive increase in the amount of waste generated after the switch to paper.
- Bans to reduce litter have little impact because plastic shopping bags are usually a fraction of the litter and waste streams at less than 1%. Their total elimination will have no impact at all on overall litter, 99% of which will remain.