One of the biggest myths in any discussion about plastic shopping bags is that they are single use bags; only used once and then tossed. But that is a fiction. They enjoy enormous reuse – 77% in Quebec and 91% in Manitoba.
At the end of the day, it is all about consumer behaviour and personal responsibility to use these products wisely. Plastic shopping bags are a valuable resource that should be reused over and over again and at the end of their useful life as a carry bag recycled into a new product.
The objective of reduction strategies is to minimize non-essential and wasteful bag usage practices like over-consumption, single-use, littering, and end of life landfill disposal.
Types of Bag Reduction Strategies and Their Effectiveness
Good reduction strategies are always voluntary and collaborative, designed to inform and persuade rather than dictate. They are grounded in product stewardship, the 3 R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – and understand that change takes time. They are ranked in order of priority in terms of effectiveness in achieving permanent change.
- Voluntary bag reduction programs
- Bag fees at check out
- Retail instore education and product stewardship initiatives
- Adoption of reusable bags
- Bag taxes legislated by governments at retail or at the manufacturing and import level
- Bag bans – outright bans, material substitution, minimum gauge requirements
Voluntary Bag Reduction Strategies have been very successful in Canada
Bag reduction strategies work and can lead to major decreases in the number of bags in the marketplace very quickly based on experience in Canada. Consumers just need to be shown the way. Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba provide the proof. All three provinces have undertaken highly successful voluntary 50% Bag Reduction Programs which reduced the number of bags distributed very quickly. Both Ontario and Quebec programs were time-limited and achieved their goals within two years – far ahead of the five-year deadline for success. Manitoba took a different approach and continues to run a sustained program that focuses on reduction and reuse of the bags to extend the life of the resource.
Ontario’s Successful 50% Bag 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.
Within one year, the program had achieved its goal. The 2008/2009 Progress Report reported a 58% reduction in the number of bags distributed, exceeding its 50% target. And success kept building. 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 generation. (Ontario Ministry of Environment Ontario Plastic Bag Reduction Task Force)
Quebec’s Highly Successful 50% Bag Reduction Program
This was a voluntary collaboration between the provincial government, the plastics industry and retailers. In 2008, retailers and the plastics industry working with the Quebec government established the Quebec Voluntary Code of Best Practices for the Use of Shopping Bag. It set a goal of reducing by 50% the use of plastic bags in the province by 2012 within 4 years.
Quebec’s Success: This program achieved a 52% reduction across the entire retail sector, two years ahead of the 2012 expiry.
A 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. http://communiques.gouv.qc.ca/gouvqc/communiques/GPQE/Juillet2012/23/c9948.html https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebecers-cut-plastic-bag-use-in-half-1.1144901
Quebec’s Sustained Success: There is strong evidence that these public-education-50%-reduction programs permanently change consumer behaviour. Not only have there been meaningful reductions in the number of bags distributed 50%+, but there have been dramatic increases in bag reuse. The Quebec Life Cycle Assessment reported a 77% reuse of conventional plastic shopping bags.
Manitoba’s Successful 50% Bag Reduction Program – Focus on Reduction and Reuse
This provincial program has been highly successful not only reducing the number of plastic shopping bags distributed by close to 50% but driving up bag reuse to 91%. It too is a voluntary collaboration with multiple community partners including foodbanks as well as industry and retailers. But Manitoba took the program to new heights making it an ongoing public education community initiative and putting emphasis on the reuse of bags. The latest 2019 Annual Report shows that Manitoba has achieved an unbelievable 91% reuse rate for plastic shopping bags. insert bagscience.ca url once completed
Reasons for the Success of 50% Bag Reduction Programs
All three programs followed a similar formula to change consumer behaviour and usage patterns. Central to success in Canada has been the use of the following tactics:
- A voluntary collaborative partnership between the government and the private sector
- Government assuming a monitoring role of progress
- Commitment to gradual but permanent behaviour change
- Public education and awareness-building of responsible use
- Consumers get to practice the 3R’s and allowed freedom of choice
- Consumer adoption of reusable bags
- Retailer commitment to 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.
- Implementation of bag fees
Discussion of Specific Strategies Leading to Success of Bag Reduction Programs – Why 50% Bag Reduction Programs Worked in Canada
Reason #1 for Success of 50% Bag Reduction Programs: It must be a voluntary and collaborative partnership between government and the private sector.
The outstanding success experienced in Ontario and Quebec on their 50% Bag Reduction programs, which exceeded all expectations, was the result of a voluntary and positive collaboration between private sector players (manufacturers and retailers) and government.
Key to success is the importance of the government monitoring role.
Targets and tactics were negotiated and formalized in Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with the government at the table. Then implementation was monitored on an ongoing basis; in Ontario, it was a Task Group which met regularly to discuss progress and make necessary modifications to the program. Ontario Plastic Bag Reduction Task ForceIn Manitoba, it is the stewardship organization, Multi-Material Stewardship Manitoba (MMSM) that continues to oversee the program and runs ongoing public education and community outreach initiatives.
Targets agreed and negotiated in the MOU are reasonable, achievable and recognize that change in consumer behaviour is gradual to be permanent. Abrupt change will only lead avoidance strategies by consumers.
Reason # 2 for Success of 50% Bag Reduction Programs: Canadians want freedom of choice and like to practice the 3R’s on plastic shopping bags.
Canadians want the choice to make their own decisions on bag use. They want to reduce their bag use to protect the environment.
In a 2015 CROP Poll, 71% of Montrealer’s indicated that they wanted the choice to practice the 3R’s to manage their plastic shopping bags. They want the ability to reduce, reuse, and recycle the bags.
And a survey of Toronto residents found the same thing — that 71% want choice and 82% want the option to practice the 3R’s on plastic shopping bags.
Survey of City of Toronto Residents
Reason # 3 for Success of 50% Bag Reduction Programs: Reusable Bags are Very Popular along with plastic shopping bags. Both bag types serve different purposes.
The adoption of reusable bags, as an alternative to the use of conventional plastic shopping bags, has been effective in Canada. Adoption is voluntary and at the discretion of the consumer. It is their choice.
In Canada, reusable bags have been widely embraced. In a survey conducted in July 2011 by the Silverhill Institute of Environmental Research and Conservation, Toronto residents indicated that 58% had adopted reusable bags.
Recyc-Quebec, a Quebec government environment agency, reports that 13.5 million reusable bags had been purchased in the Province of Quebec as of January 2011 (source: Le Journal de Montreal)
The rapid adoption of reusable bags has been driven by retailers promoting the sale of reusable bags at checkout. It is a new and growing profit centre for them with the added benefit of helping the environment.
Many retailers have their own branded bags. These are mainly plastic reusables, woven and non-woven polypropylene, polyester (recycled PET), and some cotton bags. The only limitations have been that the reusables are not recyclable in Canada and there are concerns about proper use to prevent bacterial cross-contamination of food if the reusables are not washed regularly.
Reason # 4 for Success of 50% Bag Reduction Programs: Retailer Commitment to In-store Public Education Instrumental to Capturing Attention of Consumers at Point of Purchase.
One of the most successful tactics in building awareness and educating consumers has been the leadership of retailers on consumer-outreach-on-bag-reduction-at-checkout when the consumer is a captive audience willing to hear the reduction and responsible use message. It is a one-on-one direct communication and effort to convert.
Retailers have implemented a number of awareness and conversion programs to reduce the number of non-essential bags being distributed at check out. Retailer focus has been on choice and offering consumers options like do-you-need-a-bag reminders, proper bagging, no double bagging, promotion of the sale of reusable bags and other containers, and awareness reminders.
Diversion from the Municipal Waste Stream: Retail chains have also been very proactive offering instore recycling with many stores offering take-back-to-retail and bag-to-bag programs for plastic shopping bags. This latter program has been very effective in B.C. and Atlantic Canada where historically about 30% of all bags distributed were recycled through retail stores.
The Most Successful Tools to Achieve Bag Reductions
- Bag Fees are the Most Effective Tool by Far in Reducing the Number of Bags
Bag fees are by far the most effective tool to reduce consumption of non-essential bags. Consumers request only the bags they need because they have to purchase them at check-out. It is their choice but there is a price associated with that choice.
Bag fees build awareness, educate, and drive consumers to purchase only the number of bags they need. A fee immediately focuses consumer attention on the value of the bag.
The key to success of bag fees is that they recognize the necessity for bags in everyday life and the consumer gets to choose. They are also a constant reminder to consumers that they may not need as many bags as they think they do. It drives proper bagging and encourages bag reuse.
Fee regimes on plastic shopping bags are usually voluntary and initiated by retailers, dependent on the type of relationship the retailer has with customers. Retailer-led fee strategies are evident in many countries around the world, including Germany, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Hungary, Portugal, The Netherlands, Norway, Wales, the UK and Canada. From the retailer perspective, they make environmental and business sense.
Bag fees generally cut usage at least in half to only essential bags. The City of Toronto passed a by-law to force retailers to charge for bags. This was later rescinded after one year because the number of bags distributed had declined by 54%.
It has now become common practice for retailers to charge for bags and ask if the consumer wants to buy some in every major Canadian city like Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Moncton and Halifax.
In the case of Toronto, the legislated fee led to a 54% reduction in bag usage in just one year of implementation. Toronto Staff – Voluntary Contributions of Plastic Bag Fee Proceeds.
2. Bag Taxes are Very unpopular and Have “Dis-benefits”
Taxes are always unpopular. Dependent on the size of the tax, bag taxes can act as de facto bans (Ireland). Countries with bag taxes include Belgium, Malta, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and South Africa.
In some countries, consumers are charged directly at check out, as in Ireland. In other jurisdictions, like Denmark and Finland, retailers pay the government a levy on the amount of bags (paper and plastic) used either at the manufacturing level or import stage.
Effectiveness: Bag taxes work but have an environmental price and do not completely eliminate plastic bags from the waste stream. As a strategy, bag taxes, often called “plastaxes” attempt to force consumers to suddenly modify their behaviour to stop using plastic shopping bags at check out. While taxes can be effective in reducing usage at checkout, they force consumers to use substitute alternatives like paper bags which are not better environmentally.
Taxes Force Substitutes which are Worse for the Environment: Every scientific study shows that paper bags are one of the worst bag options environmentally. Paper bags produce more carbon and generate 7 times more waste. Quebec Life Cycle Assessment, and Denmark LCA , United Kingdom LCA.
Bag Taxes Do Not Entirely Eliminate Plastic Bags from the System: One of the major reuses for thin plastic shopping bags is to manage household waste and recycle organics. With plastic bags banned, consumers are forced to purchase plastic kitchen catchers as a substitute to manage their household waste. Kitchen catchers contain as much as 76% more plastic than the conventional thin plastic shopping bag at 8 grams or 17 microns.
Proof comes to us from Ireland where the bag plastax led to a 94% reduction in the number of bags handed out at checkout but resulted in a 77% increase in the purchase of heavier plastic kitchen catchers, a 20% increase in plastic consumed, and a 400% increase in amount of paper bags used. This is what the former U.K. Minister of the Environment, Ben Bradshaw called environmental “disbenefits”.
The result was a significant increase in the amount of plastic consumed 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)
Proponents of Bag Taxes like to call them fees which they believe is more acceptable to consumers.
Washington DC Tax
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. $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 the tax was deemed a success, the diminished revenue from fewer bags used undermined the river clean-up.
Chicago Bag Tax
Chicago has a $0.07 per bag tax, the Checkout Bag Tax (“Bag Tax”) on the retail sale or use of paper and plastic checkout bags. Retail merchants retain $0.02 and the remaining $0.05 is remitted to the City.
The Least Successful Tool to Achieve Bag Reductions – A Bag Ban
1. Bag Bans are Not Effective – Bans Don’t Work
Few bans around the world call for the complete elimination of plastic shopping bags because of the necessary role they play in daily life. Most bans in fact aren’t bans at all, but government mandated changes to how the bag is made.
Plastic bags, although the government says they are banned, are still on the market post supposed ban being used by retailers and consumers. The only difference is that they are changed in some way as in Italy, France, Mexico City, China, and India and the ban is very narrowly targeted to allow the bags to remain on the market.
These changes usually involve a change to the type of plastic used to manufacture the bag or an increase in the thickness of the bag to try to drive reuse.
Why? Many supposed bans are engineered to provide support for the local economy and job creation. For instance, Italy has a strong bioplastic industry so plastic bags made from nonbiodegradable plastics are banned. France also banned nonbiodegradable plastic bags in support of their farming sector which needs markets for its corn crop.
From an environmental perspective, limiting consumer choice on bags with bans has a number of unintended negative consequences, or “disbenefits”, according a former UK Minister of the Environment, Ben Bradshaw. Bag bans result in higher resource use, more waste, more greenhouse gases, and higher waste costs. (See Bans Do Not Work)
This is because bag alternatives like paper carry greater and many more negative environmental impacts. Paper bags produce 4 times more carbon in their manufacture and 7 times more carbon in their transport. Paper bags also have very low reuse because they are not as durable tending to tear easily. Plastic bags enjoy very high reuse rates in Canada; 77% in Quebec and 91% in Manitoba.
And reusables which can be an excellent alternative if used over 100 times are not reused enough to balance the amount of resources used to make them. On top of that, almost all reusable bags, although made from plastic, cannot be recycled because they are multi-material bags and recycling is just too expensive.
Many calls for bans on plastic bags are motivated by a wish to reduce litter because there is a general perception that plastic shopping bags are a major litter item. They are not. Litter audits conducted across North America show that plastic shopping bags are a tiny fraction of litter in the 0.4% range – that is less than a half of 1% of the litter stream. http://plasticbagsandyourhealth.ca/#litter
The result is that a ban on plastic shopping bags has little to no impact on litter because plastic shopping bags are such a tiny portion of all litter. Their total elimination will have no impact at all on overall litter as 99% of litter will remain.
We all need to be reminded that litter is not a material or a product problem, but a people bad behaviour problem which will only be fixed through public education and some anti-litter enforcement regime.