This section of the All About Bags website looks at the bag issue from a Canadian consumer’s perspective: how bags are used in Canada and globally, their importance, and the changing patterns of usage. This section also looks at common myths around bag reuse and recycling.
Click to jump to section:
- What Bags Are and Are Not
- Bags invented to Help the Environment
- Bags a miracle of modern technology
- Bags a small fraction of litter
- Made in Canada
- What Bags are Used For
- They are multi-purpose, multi-use bags
- Sterile, Hygienic Carry Bags
- Reused multiple times as kitchen catchers and for pet waste
- A tool to recycle organics
- Issues Surrounding Plastic Shopping Bags
- Problems with the Toronto Bag Ban
What Bags Are and Are Not
Bags were invented to help the environment
There is a great deal of misinformation about plastic shopping bags, particularly when it comes to the environment. Plastic shopping bags were introduced in the late 1970’s to help protect the environment—as an alternative to paper bags—to save trees. They have an environmental purpose so it is a great irony that we see environmental issues resulting from their use today.
Bags are packets of frozen natural gas
The manufacture of plastic shopping bags is a miracle of modern technology. And many will be surprised to learn that plastic shopping bags are pieces of frozen natural gas.
There is a common misconception that plastic shopping bags are made from oil, a non-renewable resource. That is not the case in Canada. Here at home, plastic shopping bags are made from natural gas.
In fact, they are made from a strand of natural gas called ethane. The ethane is burned off to lower the BTU value of the gas so that it does not burn and can be used to heat our homes and businesses safely. In short, plastic bags are manufactured from the conserved part of this natural resource.
Made in Canada, not China and bag manufacturers employ thousands
Most people confuse the manufacture of reusable bags, which are manufactured almost exclusively in China, with the manufacture of conventional plastic shopping bags. Off all bags in the Canadian stream, 90% of the bags used by large grocery retailers are made in Ontario.
In fact, Ontario is one of three advanced plastic manufacturing hubs in North America, just behind California and Ohio. There are approximately 185 plastic shopping bag manufacturers in Ontario, together employing over 10,000 Ontarians, plus thousands of businesses that support these companies with other services. These are mainly family-run businesses, with 50% of them focused in the Toronto area and the rest spread across the province. The plastic bag industry is inextricably tied to economy.
An added benefit is that the conventional plastic bags are not only made in Ontario, but are recycled locally and reused in the manufacturing of a wide variety of secondary products...creating even more manufacturing jobs for Ontarians.
Plastic bags are "multi-purpose, multi-use"
Too often, plastic shopping bags are called single-use bags and that is not the case. Plastic shopping bags are multi-purpose and multi-use. They are used, reused, and then recycled at the end of their life. They are used as carry bags, bin liners to recycle organic and waste, and service many other needs.
Sterile, Hygienic Carry Bags
Plastic shopping bags are most often used as carry bags to transport groceries and other purchases from store to home. In addition to being strong, inexpensive and waterproof, their primary benefit is that they provide a safe, hygienic and affordable way to transport goods.
Reused multiple times, bags then work as bin liners and contain pet mess
Studies show that 93% of Canadians reuse their plastic bags two or more times – as lunch or storage bags, as packing material, as kitchen catchers, to carry laundry and wet swim suits, and to pick up after pets. In Toronto, bags are necessary for recycling organic waste. This practice diverts over 100,000 tonnes of organics from Toronto’s landfill into its proper channel and secondary product, compost.
In Toronto, 44% of the bags are reused to recycle organics, 41% are reused for household waste and 15% are recycled.
No other community in Canada has an organics program based on the plastic shopping bag. The City recognized that the plastic bag would drive resident participation. Because plastic bags are waterproof, they help to overcome the “yuk factor”, and are most helpful to those who want to contribute to compost, but live in high rise buildings.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment data shows that 59.1% of the bags distributed in Ontario are reused. The more common reuses for the bags are as kitchen catchers to manage household, organic and pet waste.
We also know that there will still be plastic bags in Toronto’s waste system with a ban in place, and likely even more. The difference is that residents will have to purchase heavier and more expensive kitchen catchers and other plastic-type bags. Kitchen catchers contain up to 76% more plastic than the conventional plastic bag, so the ban puts a higher concentration of plastic into the waste system, unwittingly.
Plastic shopping bags are also particularly important for those who live in high rise apartments. In Toronto, there are over one million people—50% of dwellings are high rises—who rely on these bags to manage their garbage and recycle organics.
The Bags are Highly Recycled in Toronto and Across Canada
Canadians are strongly committed to the 3 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. Over 90%, when given the opportunity, recycle their plastic bags (Decima Research).
Canadians recycle their bags through blue box, in-store take back and bag-to-bag programs. Rates are quite high across the country, from 32% in BC to over 50% in some Atlantic provinces. The rest go to the reduce and reuse camps.
There is a network of recyclers across the country that enable this recycling. The larger players are Inteplast and Merlin Plastics in Western Canada, EFS in Ontario, RM Group in Quebec, and Inteplast in Atlantic Canada.
EFS-Plastics in Elmira (near Toronto) takes Toronto’s clean, used, plastic bags and recycles them from blue bin collection. The bags are washed and ground up into pellets which are then sold to manufacturers who use them in manufacturing processes to make new plastic products, like new bags, water pipes, outdoor furniture, office supplies and flooring.
The bags are re-manufactured into new products:
Demand for recycled plastic bags and film is so great, that supply cannot keep up. The plastic composite market is growing at 14% a year and estimated at $1 billion per year. One 2" x 6" x 16' composite board uses about 2,250 plastic shopping bags. The Toronto Western Beaches boardwalk is a plastic lumber boardwalk made from about 32 million recycled plastic shopping bags.
Other Examples of Products Made From Recycled Plastic Shopping Bags
There is a trend in Canada to use reusables as carry bags for groceries. According to a study by the Silverhill Institute for Environmental Research and Conservation, 58% of Torontonians use reusable bags.
Reusable bags can be a good environmental option if they are reused many times, as intended. If they are not, then a conventional plastic shopping bag is better for the environment in three chief ways: it uses fewer resources to make, performs well on reuse and recycle criteria, and can be recycled in Canada. Reusable bags are not currently recycled in Canada.
A 2011 UK Government Life Cycle Assessment found that all bag options have environmental consequences. Surprisingly, it also found that cotton/canvas reusable bags have to be reused 131 times to match the environmental performance of conventional plastic shopping bags used just once. Non-woven polypropylene bags have to be reused 11 times and heavier guage plastic bags have to be reused three times to match the environmental performance of a conventional plastic bag.
What is often forgotten in the discussion of the superiority of reusables over conventional plastic shopping bags is that plastic shopping bags are multi-purpose, multi-use bags. Plastic shopping bags are not used just as a convenience to carry groceries, but are a necessity for almost every kind of goods purchase and for managing household waste. A hearty 60% of plastic bags are reused in Ontario.
But what if plastic bags were no longer available? What happens to that 60% reuse Ontario enjoys? For example, a cotton/canvas reusable bag would never be used as a bin liner for household waste. And there are those who do not have time or inclination to wash their reusable bags to avoid bacterial cross-contamination of their food. There are those who just forget their reusable and need a plastic bag when shopping. And some cannot afford the cost of reusables and certainly cannot afford to buy kitchen catchers at $0.20 per bag for their garbage.
So, if plastic shopping bags are not available, we would require another type of plastic bag to fill the gap. And the only option we have today as a replacement is the heavier and more expensive plastic kitchen catcher or nothing at all.
Tips: Use reusable bags a minimum of 131 times to be more beneficial than plastic bags for the environment. Wash reusable bags regularly to prevent bacterial build up from groceries.
For more information on the proper use of reusables, go to Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/kitchen-cuisine/reusable-bags-sacs-reutilisable-eng.php.
There have been a number of successful efforts in Canada to reduce consumption and change shopping behaviour. In Toronto, 58% of residents have adopted reusables, according to the Silverhill Institute study. And now the City of Toronto has banned plastic shopping bags to encourage the other 40% of residents, who currently don’t use reusable bags, to use them.
The plastic bag poses complex issues and there are no simple solutions. A ban produces other issues whose solutions present fewer benefits than the current usage represents, because of the unintended consequences. Behavioural change is gradual and is best achieved through education, voluntary choice, and continued promotion of the 3 Rs encouraging consumer participation.
Experience from around the world shows that bans do not work and can be detrimental to the environment and economy.
In almost every country where a ban has been attempted, it has either failed or caused greater environmental problems. Canadians prefer voluntary approaches.
A scan of bag bans around the world shows two things:
- Bans almost always fail when they eliminate choice, don’t have the support of the local population, and the alternative is not considered acceptable. Locals find ways to avoid the ban. Bans have failed in Somalia, Tanzania, The Republic of Somaliland, India, Taiwan.
- Most bans advertised as bans are not bans at all, but simply a change in how the bag is made. Either the bag is made thicker or a different type of plastic is used. In all cases, the bags are still on the market. Good examples are Italy, France, China, India, Mexico City.
Bag bans always have consequences, intended or unintended, that hurt the environment.
In 2001, Taiwan introduced a ban on plastic shopping bags in its fast food sector, which forced retailers to move to paper bags. In 2006, Taiwan rescinded the ban on plastic bags because it led to a massive increase in paper waste—what they called “a mountain of waste”—and greenhouse gas emissions rose sharply. Taiwan rescinded the ban, reinstated the use of plastic, and moved to a recycling model.
So What Does Work?
Canadians take product stewardship seriously, taking an active role in using bags as carry bags, reusing/repurposing them, and then recycling them at the end of their life. In Canada, bags are not the litter or landfill problem they are rumoured to be.
Voluntary programs are very successful at reducing the number of bags used by consumers
Voluntary reduction strategies have proven very effective in Canada. These are programs where government enters into a collaboration with the bag industry and retailers to work together to encourage consumers to use fewer bags by promoting reusables, bag fees, efficient bagging, the do you need a bag prompt and other initiatives.
The Governments of Ontario and Quebec put in place Voluntary 50% Reduction Programs which achieved their goals within three years. Ontario reduced the number of bags distributed by -68% and Quebec reduced the number of bags distributed by -52%. The key elements of success are that these programs are voluntary, and leave the choice up to the consumer. Given the choice, consumers reduced their own consumption of non-essential bags.
Majority of Canadians switched to reusable bags
Success of the reduction programs is attributed to the strong stewardship values shared by Canadian consumers and retailers alike. Retailers undertook at check-out a number of different reduction efforts – bag fees, do you need a bag prompting, and promoted the use of reusable bags. Consumers in both provinces started to change their shopping patterns, adopting reusable bags. A study by the environmental research tank, Silverhill Institute for Environmental Research and Conservation, found that 58% of Torontonians have adopted reusable bags.
Bag fees are a reduction strategy
The City of Toronto provides an example of the effectiveness of bag fees in reducing the number of bags handed out by retailers at checkout. Even though bags are charged at only $0.05, it forces consumers to think twice about their need for a plastic shopping bag. In three years of retail bag fees, the number of bags entering the City of Toronto waste system declined by -53%. While this was legislated by the City council with a by-law, which has since been rescinded, retailers are continuing to charge for bags and consumer behaviour has evolved.
- The biggest question is why Toronto felt that there was a need to ban the bags. The bags are an insignificant part (only 0.8%) of litter and waste according to city’s 2012 Waste Audit which demonstrates that a bag ban will have no impact on the litter issue.
- On waste, bags are a tiny fraction of all of Toronto’s waste—only 0.6% of total solid waste. A ban will have no impact on reducing waste and would most likely lead to greater concentrations of plastic in the system, because residents will have to purchase of kitchen catchers to deal with the problem a ban creates.
- Torontonians are committed to the 3 Rs – reducing, reusing and recycling—and 58% of residents use reusable bags. The number of new plastic bags in the stream has been reduced by 53% because of bag fees which are still in place with large grocery retailers. 44% of plastic bags are reused for organics waste collection. 41% of the bags are reused as kitchen catchers for waste. And those that are left over (15%) are recycled in the blue bin.
- Toronto also has a state-of-the-art recovery and recycling system for plastic shopping bags that allows residents to do their part.
- Plastic shopping bags are a building block for Toronto’s successful organics collection system which was designed around further usage of the plastic bag. Organics are a large part of Toronto’s landfill—33%. So organics recycling is essential in that it diverts over 100,000 tonnes per year to composting, and away from landfill, extending the life of landfill.
- Organics: because bags are waterproof, they help remove the “yuk” factor which encourages more residents to participate in the organics recycling program. Paper grocery bags are not waterproof and do not provide adequate solution, with respect to processing organics.
- In total, 59% of all plastic bags are in some form of the recycling stream (44% for organics recycling and 15% in the blue bin). These bags are sent to a local recycler, EFS in Elmira, where they are recycled back into resin and sent to local manufacturers to make new bags, outdoor furniture, new bags and plastic lumber.
There are three core problems with the bag ban:
- The alternative under consideration – Kraft paper bags – is worse for the environment because they are not waterproof and are not usually reused. Paper does not perform well on reuse because it tends to tear easily.
- Study after scientific study shows that, on a life cycle basis, paper bags use far more resources in their manufacture and have a greater global warming impact than plastic bags.
A move to paper will increase the amount of bag material in Toronto’s waste stream by approximately 700% because paper weighs a lot more and has significantly more volume. A paper grocery bag weighs 55 grams and a plastic bag weighs 8 grams. This will lead to a sevenfold increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which is why Taiwan rescinded its bag ban in 2006.
- The fact that reusables are not recyclable becomes a serious waste management problem, as they end up in landfill at the end of their life. Reusabe bags, in addition, are not appropriate when dealing with waste.
- The ban does not consider that plastic bags are a necessity to manage household waste. 41% of shopping bags are reused for household waste as kitchen catchers. Many, post ban will have to purchase kitchen catchers to use as kitchen catchers, which contain 76% more plastic than shopping bags. This means that more plastic than that of pre-ban will be in the waste system. The plastic bag ban creates a larger plastic problem.
Toronto has one of the most sophisticated recovery systems in Canada – a green, blue and grey bin system.
Here’s How it Works:
- Plastic bags are used to recover organics in the Green Bin.
- Clean unused plastic bags are recovered through the Blue Bin.
- The Blue Bin bags are sent to local EFS plastics for Recycling.
- Bags are ground up and pellets are sold to manufacturers to use to make new products.
1Actualités - Journal de Montréal 29/01/2011 and 30/01/2011 .