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

Reduction Strategies—What Works?

The Facts
  • The value of reduction strategies is that they do not attempt to force sudden and abrupt changes in consumer shopping behaviour. They are rooted in the understanding that awareness building and public education are essential to behavioural change and it is a gradual process. And for the change to be lasting, it needs to be voluntary and based on choice.

  • 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 focus not just on reduction, but wise use – the reuse and recycling to encourage responsible use and minimize litter impacts.
  • Reduction strategies include a wide and complex range of product stewardship activities focused on the 3 Rs to shape and encourage change in consumer behaviour. There are a wide range of strategies which have met with varying degrees of social success and which also minimized non-essential or wasteful bag usage. Key to success are strategies that educate, provide continued top of mind prompting, and fit into the user’s life style.
  • A number of different strategies have been implemented around the world to minimize and discourage the use of plastic shopping bags. These include: 
    • 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 levels
    • Bag bans—outright bans, material substitution or minimum gauge requirements
    • Retail bag product stewardship initiatives
  • The impetus for these strategies varies by jurisdiction. Some have genuine concern over litter and low recycling rates; some want to avoid the cost of  putting in place a recycling/waste management infrastructure. Others seek to reduce waste management costs, extend the life of a landfill, or promote local industry and jobs. Some want to promote a green ethic, where bags are seen as a symbol of over-consumption. Sometimes, it is just political.
  • Each reduction strategy has strengths and limitations.

    • Conversion to reusables is highly effective in reducing the use of plastic shopping bags as carry bags, but it does not reduce the number bags and amount of plastic used to manage household waste and it has environmental limitations because reusable bags are not recyclable in Canada.
    • Voluntary reduction programs are highly successful in Canada, achieving more than 50% reduction in the number of plastic shopping bags distributed. .
    • Retailer stewardship initiatives are highly effective. Retailers are critical partners in effecting behaviour change by building awareness and providing alternatives..
    • Bag taxes are not as effective because they  are seen as coercive and are unpopular. They can lead to non-compliance and conversion to alternatives that are worse for the environment.
    • Bag fees are highly effective in removing non-essential bags and for allowing consumer choice. This is a voluntary approach that builds on product stewardship principles, promotes wise use, and is more effective in maintaining support from citizens.
    • Bag bans are most often not effective. They are a top-down approach that tries to force abrupt change in the marketplace by eliminating choice. They undermine retail and consumer product stewardship principles and the 3 Rs. Bans have unintended negative consequences related to impacts on the environment, consumers, economies and jobs. They are also seen to trigger avoidance or non-compliance.

Reduction Strategies and Their Effectiveness

  1. Adoption of reusable bags
  2. Voluntary reduction programs
  3. Bag fees at check out
  4. Bag taxes legislated by governments at retail or at the manufacturing and import level
  5. Bag bans – outright bans, material substitution, minimum gauge requirements
  6. Retail bag product stewardship initiatives
1. The Adoption of Reusable Bags is Very Effective

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)

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2. Voluntary Bag Reduction Strategies have Mixed Success

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.

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 3. Retailer Stewardship Strategies Focus on Public Education and Choice

Initiatives

4. Bag Taxes are not as Effective in Promoting Wise Use

Washington D.C.

  • 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.

Ireland

  • 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.

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5. Bag Fees are Very Effective

6. Bag Bans are Not Effective (Bans Don't Work)

1 The Grocery Bag Controversy, Silverhill Institute for Environmental Research and Conservation, July 2011 (page 2)

2 http://www.treehugger.com/environmental-policy/plastic-bag-use-cut-more-half-2-years-ahead-schedule-quebec.html

3 http://communiques.gouv.qc.ca/gouvqc/communiques/GPQE/Juillet2012/23/c9948.html

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