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

Are Reusable Bags Greener than Conventional Plastic Shopping Bags?

Fiction:  Reusable bags are better for the environment.

Fact:  Not necessarily. All bags have environmental impacts, so it depends on the bag, how it is used, and most importantly, how often it is used. Conventional plastic shopping bags are one of the best bag alternatives for the environment, particularly if reused more than once.

The Facts

  • Reusable bags, or longer-life bags, are not a greener alternative until they are reused many times and as frequently as intended.

  • All bags are reusable; even the conventional plastic shopping bag has an audited reuse rate between 40-60% in Canada.

  • 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. And some natural materials like cotton/canvas, for example, require excessive pesticide use and water in the growing process which have negative environmental impacts.

  • A 2011 UK Government comparative study of supermarket bags shows, for example, that a cotton reusable bag must be reused 131 times to match the lower environmental impact of a conventional plastic shopping bag used just once.

Limitations on Environmental Effectiveness

  • The use of reusable bags as carry bags does not equate to a reduction in the number of plastic bags householders use to manage their waste in the grey or green bins.
  • Consumers still have to purchase lighter-weight plastic bags for household waste to supplement their use of reusables. A 2007 Decima Research study shows that 78% of Canadians and 76% of Ontarians would purchase kitchen catchers if plastic shopping bags are no longer available.1
  • Reusable bags are designed to have a longer life, but serve only one purpose, as a carry bag. While they offer real potential to reduce the need for conventional plastic bags to carry groceries, they would never be used to manage household or pet waste.

  • Conventional plastic shopping bags, on the other hand, are multi-purpose/multi-use bags that are designed for shorter life and which meet many different requirements of daily life. They are a necessity for impulse purchases and to manage househould, organics and pet waste.

Not Recyclable in Canada

  • Reusable bags are not recyclable in Canada, which weakens their environmental effectiveness.
  • Because reusables are usually multi-material bags to add strength and durability, the bags must be deconstructed in the recycling process. This makes recycling time-intensive and cost-prohibitive. So when the bags reach the end of their useful life, they are treated as waste and end up in landfill (Source: Journal de Montreal Analysis – Recyc-Quebec January 2011). 
  • Currently, there are no recyclers in Canada who recycle reusable bags.
  • Because there is a strong recycling network across the country, conventional plastic shopping bags are recyclable in Canada. And recycling rates are quite high in most provinces. The bags are remanufactured into new bags, plastic lumber, outdoor furniture, and office supplies.

More Detail

The "Catch 22” of Reusable Bags

Consumers Use Plastics Bags for Organics

Environmental Impact of Heavier Reusable Bags

Reusables are being Adopted by Canadians

Reusable Bags Compared to Conventional Plastic Bags—The Science

Graphic Look at the UK 2011 Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Bags (including reusables)
(Source: BBC Magazine http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17027990)

Used just once, a plastic bag has a lower carbon footprint

1 Decima Televox National Telephone Omnibus, Consumer Opinions on Plastic Bag Use, April 25th, 2007.
2 Le Journal de Montreal Analysis – Recyc-Quebec January 2011
3 SilverHill Institute for Environmental Research and Conservation, The Grocery Bag Controversy, February 2012. page 2
4
 http://communiques.gouv.qc.ca/gouvqc/communiques/GPQE/Juillet2012/23/c9948.html
5 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/57346/0016899.pdf, page 18

 

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