For years, environmentalists have portrayed plastic shopping bags as an environmental evil that needs to be eliminated; to be banned. But is that true? And will banning the bags provide any societal benefits? Will it help stop climate change? Will it reduce the reliance on landfills?
Plastic shopping bags are a perfect candidate to help build a circular economy in which all materials are reused and recycled.
This makes the argument that a ban on plastic shopping bags will have the complete opposite impact of what is intended. Bans will accelerate climate change by leading to substitutes that emit more carbon and greenhouse gases. It will increase the amount of material going to landfill and it puts the health of Canadians at risk.
The science does not support a ban. The science and how Canadians use plastic shopping bags prove that plastic shopping bags are the best bag environmentally, better than any substitute like paper carry bags and even reusables. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Education-Resources/Publications/Impact-of-Plastics-Packaging.pdf
The environmentalists have it wrong. The problem is not the bag but how people use them – whether they use the bags responsibly and practice the 3R’s. Not only do Canadians practice the 3R’s but they want the choice to practice the 3R’s. A 2015 survey of Montrealer’s found that 87% of citizens want to practice the 3R’s. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/city-of-toronto-bag-ban-510814561.html
Contrary to the environmental dogma, plastic shopping bags are not single use, but have extremely high reuse rates according to government studies conducted in Canada; as high as 77% in Quebec and 91% in Manitoba. https://www.recyc-quebec.gouv.qc.ca/sites/default/files/documents/acv-sacs-emplettes-rapport-complet.pdf; https://stewardshipmanitoba.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/205926-MMSM-2019-Annual-Report-WEB.pdf
The biggest attack on plastics is that plastic bags are a large litter item. This is NOT TRUE in Canada or North America for that matter. The science does not support the litter argument. Multiple litter audits conducted show that plastic shopping bags are only 0.4% of litter; that they are less than half of 1 percent of a litter is plastic shopping bags and that is across all of North America. http://plasticbagsandyourhealth.ca/#litter
What are the consequences of a ban on plastic shopping bags?
Decisions to ban plastic bags always have consequences, intended and unintended, that impact not just on the environment but jobs and public health. Many decisions to ban plastic shopping bags are made ahead of understanding their impact or a fulsome very public discussion of the impact of any ban on the environment, jobs, household budgets, local landfills.
Common misunderstandings impede good decision-making and policies around all bags. For example, many believe that paper is better because it will biodegrade when in landfill when in fact landfills are designed to inhibit decay. http://allaboutbags.ca/degradeinlandfill.html (will need to update link for new site) No bag – reusable or conventional plastic – will degrade in landfill.
Decisions made in the name of the environment should be based on science and fact with full public discourse of the impacts economically, environmentally and socially.
Everyone should understand those consequences and make sure that they are discussed publicly before any decision to ban is made.
And Bag Bans do have serious and grave consequences.
Consequences Related to the Impact on Jobs and the Economy: Canada has a strong and very green plastic bag manufacturing sector across Canada employing 25,000 Canadians in high paying jobs.
Reusable bags, one of the substitutes, are mainly manufactured in Asia. A ban on plastic shopping bags means that we are exporting jobs to Asia and mainly China.
Consequences Related to the Impact on Public Health: Completely ignored in the discussion of plastic bag bans, to the peril of Canadians, is their critical role in protecting the health of Canadians.
The public health benefits of plastic bags are serious. Each year, according to Health Canada, 11,000 Canadians fall victim to foodborne illnesses caused by e-Coli and salmonella for instance.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the importance of keeping our carry bags very clean so they do not become contaminated with bacteria or viruses. http://plasticbagsandyourhealth.ca/#litter https://www.plastics.ca/?f=file_A_Microbiological_Study_of_Reusable_Grocery_Bags_May20_09.pdf&n=file_A_Microbiological_Study_of_Reusable_Grocery_Bags_May20_09.pdf (upload study)
Consequences Related to the Impact on the Environment: Scientific studies show repeatedly that plastic shopping bags are the best bag environmentally. They have the smallest carbon footprint and result in the substitution of alternatives more harmful to the environment.
A ban on plastic shopping bags and substitution of less environmentally friendly alternatives like paper and cotton have what the former U.K. Minister of the Environment called environmental “disbenefits”.
Why? Because plastic shopping bags produce less carbon in their manufacture and transport than any other alternative.
Note: Cotton growing requires extremely heavy use of poisonous insecticides to kill boll weevils.
The science shows that the substitution of alternatives to plastic bags will actually accelerate climate change. Switching to paper produces seven times more waste, seven times more trucks to transport or collect it, and generates up to four times more greenhouse gasses. And most reusable bags are not recyclable so they end up in landfill. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Education-Resources/Publications/Impact-of-Plastics-Packaging.pdf
Consequences related to Social Impacts: Bans are a top-down attempt to force sudden behaviour change and have a heavy financial impact on the poor which is always ignored by policy makers.
There are no easy answers and no silver bullets. The idea of banning bags is an attempt to find a simple solution to a complex issue.
Decisions to ban ignore how and why people use plastic shopping bags and their necessity for many aspects of daily living. Plastic shopping bags are multi-purpose, multi-use bags.
Total bans on plastic shopping bags are very rare because they limit consumer choice and ignore how and why consumers use plastic shopping bags in their daily lives.
For many, plastic shopping bags are a necessity and ignore the high reuse of the bag like managing household waste or to recycle organics, particularly in multi-residential dwellings. The City of Toronto uses the plastic shopping bag to encourage householder participation in their organics program. Plastic bags help remove the “yuk” factor in organics recycling.
Even the State of California has allowed a thicker reusable plastic bag as part of their state-wide bag ban regime on thin plastic shopping bags. This thicker plastic bag can be reused 125 times, is easily cleaned and can be recycled.
Different Strategies on Bans and their Relative Effectiveness
When is a bag ban really a ban that actually reduces the production of carbon and works to build a circular economy on bags?
1. Total Bans – Replacing Plastic Bags with Reusables
- Total bans almost always fail because they eliminate consumer choice and are not voluntary. This type of bag ban abandons grassroots product stewardship principles and 3 Rstrategies to manage bags. Achieving lasting change in consumer behaviour takes time, and requires considerable awareness building and public education.
- Total bans are a top-down directive that attempts to force sudden and abrupt change in consumer behaviour. The go-to substitutes – reusable bags and paper bags – have their own environmental downsides. Paper bags are not durable, have a very low reuse rate and are hard to carry. Reusable bags are not recycled and have a heavy impact on landfill. They also pose a public health risk if not washed after every use.
- Total bans are rarely mandated by governments and require a serious and expensive enforcement regime to make them work.
- Given the large employment in Canada’s successful plastic bag industry, total bans have unintended consequences that prove detrimental to the environment, local economy, retailers, consumers and jobs.
2. Partial Bag Bans – Banning thin plastic bags but keeping heavier gauge reusable bags on the market
- Most bans mandated by governments worldwide do not attempt to totally eliminate bags from the marketplace, but only mandate modifications to how the bag is made.
- In some countries, bans target ultra-thin plastic bags (i.e., thin gauge) but not on thicker plastic bags of a heavier gauge. In those countries, bags are still in use, but are still promoted as a ban on bags.
- This often includes modifications to the type of plastic used to manufacture the bag like the use of biodegradable plastic or in many cases, bans eliminating lighter gauge bags and mandating the production of thicker bags that are reusable.
- Good examples on the use of biodegradable plastics are Italy and France.
- The City of Montreal has mandated that all plastic shopping bags be at least 50 microns thick so they can be reused.
3. Using bans as an economic development policy tool to strengthen the local economy and create jobs
- In this case, the strategy is not to remove or eliminate plastic bags as a carry device from the market, but to modify how the bag is produced so that it creates and supports local jobs and local manufacturing. The ban in fact becomes a job creator.
- In Italy and France, their bag bans only mandated a change in the type of plastic used. They moved from biodegradable to nonbiodegradable plastic. Although it was reported that they implemented a total ban on plastic bags, they actually did not ban the bags, just the use of nonbiodegradable plastic.
- Italy did it to support in their bioplastics sector. And France did it to support their local agricultural sector.
4. Banning plastic bags in favour of paper bags
- The go-to substitute for plastic bags by ban proponents is paper. There are multiple problems with this move.
- Firstly, it ignores the importance of trees as carbon sinks to the health of the planet. A lot of trees will have to be cut to produce paper bags for groceries and they have a very low reuse rate because they are just not sturdy enough. Paper bags are not waterproof, are hard to carry without handles, not reusable and tear easily thus damaging the contents they were meant to protect.
- Most important, the Quebec government Life Cycle Assessment found that paper bags were the worst bag environmentally, performing poorly on all measures like impact on human health when compared to reusable and plastic bags.
- Other studies have found that paper bags are more carbon intensive, producing four times more carbon in their manufacture and seven times more carbon in their transport because so much more material is used to make a paper bag than a plastic bag.
- And finally, one of the unintended consequences of the switch to paper bags is that it creates a mountain of waste and generates significantly more greenhouse gases than plastic shopping bags. Paper bags are about seven times heavier, weighing about 55 grams, compared to plastic bags at eight grams.
5. Banning non-biodegradable plastic bags in favour of biodegradable bags
- The problem with biodegradable plastic bags is that they cannot be recycled and become a contaminate in the recycling process. This then can kill the recycling of all plastic film which includes bread and milk bags, dry cleaning bags etc. CRIQ Evaluation of the Impact of Biodegradable Bags on the Recycling of Traditional Plastic Bags.
- It is too costly and complicated to sort the biodegradable bags, so they become a contaminant. The result is that none of the plastic gets recycled and ALL of the plastic film and bags – the entire stream – ends up in landfill because it cannot be recycled.
Reduction Strategies Work
The Most Effective Strategy to Reduce Plastic Bags in the Waste Stream
- By far the most effective and proven way to reduce the use of plastic bags is the implementation of reduction strategies that encourage gradual change in consumer behaviour.
- Fees Work: Tactics like bag fees at checkout that put a price on the bag are the best motivator to reduce the number of bags consumers request at check out. The fee acts not only as a deterrent, but eliminates non-essential bags.
- Reduction strategies are designed to persuade and to educate, not dictate. These strategies recognize and build on the complexity of bag usage. They focus not just on reduction, but wise use – reuse and recycling to encourage responsible use and minimize litter impacts.
- Reduction strategies are the most effective in managing, reducing and promoting responsible use of plastic shopping bags because they recognize the benefits and necessity of plastic shopping bags in daily life – impulse purchases, managing household and pet waste, and organics programs.
- Plastic shopping bags with their exceptional high reuse in Quebec at 77% and in Manitoba at 91% are the only multi-purpose, multi-use bag on the market.
- Reduction strategies are so effective because they are immediately employed at point of purchase. In Canada, retailers play a critical role at check out employing a number of strategies like the use of fees, ‘do-you-need-a-bag’ programs, the sale of reusables, and a number offer instore recycling for bags.
Reduction strategies have been wildly successful in Canada.
- Reduction strategies have been wildly successful in Canada. Canadians prefer voluntary approaches that give them freedom of choice. Retailer fees, while not popular, are voluntary.
- Government-led Voluntary 50% Reduction Programs have exceeded expectations in reducing the number of bags being distributed and driven up reuse numbers to over 90% in the province of Manitoba and 77% in Quebec. Reuse is just another form of reduction.
- The Ontario 50% reduction program achieved an almost 70% reduction in the number of plastic shopping bags distributed and the Province of Quebec 50% reduction program achieved a 52% reduction in the number of bags within 3 years: 2 years ahead of schedule.
- Survey examining the use of plastic shopping bags – Montrealers Prefer Awareness Initiatives over a Ban
- Reduction strategies work. The City of Toronto provides another example where strong 3R’s and product stewardship principles have eliminated municipal need for a bag ban. A ban is just not necessary because the bags are so well managed. Plastic bags in Toronto are a tiny fraction of litter at 0.7% of total litter; and 95% of the bags are reused or recycled.
- Reduction strategies work to change consumer behaviour over a relatively short period of time because they focus on behaviour change and people, not the bag. Their success is predicated on the 3R’s, public education on wise use, consumer choice and they are voluntary.