Mandating carry bags made from alternative materials like paper and cotton to replace plastic bags will hurt the environment, not help it. Substitution will only accelerate climate change and make zero waste impossible.
The Challenge of Bag Policy – Plastic Shopping Bags Protect Us
Anti-bag advocates believe that there is an easy fix. Just eliminate plastic and paper, reusable bags, cotton, nylon, hemp bags. There is no easy solution. Every bag type has environmental and public health impacts.
What anti-plastic advocates ignore is the public health benefits of plastic shopping bags and how people use them in their daily lives. As seen during the pandemic, plastic shopping bags helped protect us from the transmission of the coronavirus. (plasticbagsandyourhealth.ca)
Plastic shopping bags as first use bags help to prevent the spread of foodborne illness from cross-contamination of our groceries with other pathogens like the norovirus, e-Coli, salmonella, and listeria that cause over 11,000 hospital visits a year in Canada. (http://plasticbagsandyourhealth.ca/#prevent). Why? Because a majority of reusable bag owners do not keep their bags clean so they can grow and transport pathogens cross-contaminating clean their reusable bag after every use. (http://allaboutreusablebags.ca/#polls)
The Challenge of Bag Policy – The Science Shows Alternatives are NOT Better
The science overwhelmingly does not support the elimination of plastic bags and substitution by alternatives. The most popular substitutes proposed are paper and reusable bags. All Life Cycle Assessments conducted by governments over the past few years – the Government of Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Government of Quebec all found plastic shopping bags to be the best bag environmentally; the bag to have the lowest impact on the environment.
The 2018 Quebec Life Cycle Assessment found paper to be one of the worst options in terms of environmental impact. The paper bag is the least performing bag with 4 to 28 times greater potential impacts than the conventional plastic bag. www.recyc-quebec.gouv.qc.ca/sites/default/files/documents/acv-sacs-emplettes-faits-saillants.pdf
The U.K. Life Cycle Assessment found that paper bags have to be reused 7 times to match the lower environmental impact of a plastic shopping bag used twice; the paper bag has to be reused 3 times to match the environmental impact of the plastic shopping bag used just once.
The non-woven polypropylene reusable needs to be reused 11 times to match the environmental performance of the plastic shopping bag used just once and reused 26 times to be better environmentally than a plastic shopping bag used as a carry bag and then reused as a bin liner.
2011 U.K. Government Environment Agency Study Report 2011 – “A Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags” http://publications.environment-agency.gov.uk/PDF/SCHO0711BUAN-E-E.pdf
Amount of Primary Use Required for Alternative Bags to Match Environmental Performance of Conventional Plastic Shopping Bag Used Just Once
Page 84 Clemson Life Cycle Assessment of Plastic Retail Bags (PRB) https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=cudp_environment
The Challenge of Bag Policy – Alternatives do not Eliminate Plastic Waste
Anti-plastic bag advocates also ignore how people use and reuse plastic bags and recycle them at the end of their useful life. Plastic shopping bags are not single use bags but are reused heavily. Waterproof and engineered to hold 2,000 times their weight, they can be reused over and over again. The primary reuse is to manage household waste.
Reuse is a form of reduction and conserves resources. And Canadians do reuse their plastic shopping bags. Studies from different provinces make the case.
In the Province of Manitoba, the focus of public education has been on reuse and they have now achieved a reuse rate of 91%+. https://stewardshipmanitoba.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/205926-MMSM-2019-Annual-Report-WEB.pdf. The 2018 Quebec Life Cycle Assessment found a 77% reuse rate for plastic shopping bags (https://ciraig.org/index.php/lca-study/life-cycle-assessment-of-grocery-bags-in-quebec/) and the Ontario 50% Bag Reduction Task Group found that 59.1% of Ontarians reuse their plastic shopping bags. (upload report with click through)
The most common reuse is to manage household waste (upload and insert 2016 CROP poll click through). For example, a 2015 CROP poll of Montrealer’s found that 78% of Montrealer’s reuse their plastic shopping bag to manage household waste. (upload and add click through to the CROP poll)
Banning plastic shopping bags forces consumers to buy heavier plastic shopping bags as kitchen catchers to manage their household waste and since these plastic bags contain anywhere from 50 to 70% more plastic than the thinner plastic shopping bag.
This means more plastic, not less plastic, being consumed. Proof comes to us from Ireland where the exorbitant plastax led to a 21% increase in the amount of plastic consumed. (click through to Irish Tax url on site).
The Challenge of Bag Policy – Plastic Shopping Bags Make Zero Waste Possible
The challenge of developing bag policy is to find an alternative that actually can reduce the amount of material that is managed in the waste management system. Eliminating plastic bags and substituting paper bags and reusable bags will actually make zero waste impossible.
Let’s start with paper bags. Substituting paper bags will lead to a 7-fold increase in the amount of waste managed in the waste stream by weight and by volume. More waste.
A switch to paper will increase both the volume and tonnage of material entering the waste stream by seven times because paper is so much heavier (7 times heavier) and occupies more space. Kraft paper bags weigh 56 grams, for instance, while plastic bags weight on average 8 grams.
It takes seven trucks to transport 2 million paper bags versus one truck to carry 2 million plastic bags (Source: Bag Manufacturers Producing Plastic & Paper Bags). This means 7 times more greenhouse emissions, a 7-fold increase in recovery costs.
Reusable bags are a great alternative to reduce the number of plastic shopping bags distributed but to be good for the environment and have a lower environmental impact, they must be reused over 100 times. Multiple reuses are essential to offset the number of resources used to make them. However, we all know that each reusable bag is not used to its maximum. Research would suggest that they are reused only about 15 times. https://www.slideshare.net/EdelmanBerland/reusable-bag-study-results
More Information on Threat to Single-Use Plastics used in Consumer Packaging
COMMON ASSUMPTION: Replacing plastics in consumer packaging with alternative materials like paper, glass, and aluminum will stop climate change and reduce carbon pollution of our air.
THE REALITY: THE COMPLETE OPPOSITE IS TRUE. The science shows categorically that a ban on plastic and substituting other materials for plastic packaging like paper, glass, steel and aluminum generate more waste and emit more Greenhouse Gases than plastic.
Plastics have many properties that make them a popular choice in packaging applications. Properties such as being light weight, durability, flexibility, cushioning, and barrier properties make plastic packaging ideally suited for efficiently containing and protecting many types of products during shipment and delivery to customers without leaks, spoilage, or other damage.
THE FACTS: HERE’S THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE
Franklin Associates Substitution Analysis Life Cycle Impacts in Canada and the U.S.
This study shows: Substitution means more material needed to do the same function. On a Canadian national level, replacing the 1.6 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging would require more than 7.1 million metric tonnes of substitute packaging. Substitution consumes twice the energy of the equivalent plastic packaging and global warming potential impacts for the substitute packaging are more than double the impacts for the plastic packaging replaced.
This substitution analysis study used a Life Cycle Analysis methodology to model the substitution of plastic with alternative materials (such as paper, steel, aluminum and glass).
Conclusion: A move away from plastics may come at an even higher net environmental cost.
Use of plastic packaging vs alternatives on global warming potential eliminates 15.8 million metric tonnes of C02 emissions/year: like removing 3.3 million cars from the road per year. Or put another way, replacing plastic packaging with alternatives will increase carbon emissions by `almost 16 metric tonnes each year.
Substitution of paper, glass, steel and aluminum for plastics in consumer products and packaging would increase net environmental costs fourfold. Why? Because 4 times more replacement material is required to do the same function; more material means more carbon, energy use and resources. The amount of additional waste generated varies by product category.