­­Zero Plastic Waste – Reusing a Valuable Resource Diverting Bags from Landfill

Waste diversion focuses on conserving the resource (in this case, bags) and extending the life of a landfill. The aim is to divert as much material as possible from ending up in landfill as garbage. The goal is zero waste and the plastic resource kept circulating in the economy as long as possible.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment Zero Plastic Waste Strategy

In 2018, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, after years of negotiation, agreed on a national strategy to better manage plastics, eliminate plastic from landfill and ensure that plastics do not end up in the environment. The overall goal was to recognize the critical importance of plastic to modern life and keep it in the economy as long as possible. Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste – CCME

In the 2018 Zero Plastic Waste Strategy, the provinces agreed to work to common purpose. The Zero Plastic Waste Strategy outlines complementary actions the provinces will undertake to keep all plastic in the economy and out of the environment in three core areas:

  1. Prevention,
  2. Collection,
  3. Value recovery.

The provinces individually have been making significant progress on extended producer responsibility, on modes of recovery, and investing in new recycling technologies. 

Plastic shopping bags are a tiny part of the waste stream at less than 1%.

Because they are so lightweight, plastic bags represent a very small fraction of landfill—less than 1% by weight and when compacted, they occupy very little landfill space.

The 2011 City of Toronto Waste Audit confirms that plastic shopping bags are only a tiny fraction (0.6%) of 1% of Toronto’s total solid waste stream. This compares to glass at 7%, and paper at 9%. (Source: Toronto Waste Audits & Stewardship Ontario Waste Audits Multiple Audits 2005 – 2007).

Zero Waste is 100% Achievable

Extending the Life of the Resource – Plastic Bags are 100% Recyclable

Plastic shopping bags are a valuable resource that should not be wasted but should be reused over and over again and at the end of their useful life captured and recycled. Plastic shopping bags are made from clean energy and are 100% recyclable.

Made from natural gas, plastic shopping bags are highly recyclable in the national network of recycling plants located across Canada. The plastic recycled from bags is then used to make a wide range of products like flooring, outdoor furniture, office supplies, and packaging etc. It is a $2 billion market in North America.

Successful Municipal Recovery Systems for Plastic Shopping Bags

Plastic bags comprise less than 1% of landfill and the waste stream. There are a number of diversion strategies in use by municipalities to divert bags from the waste stream, based on the 3 Rs.

For plastic shopping bags, most municipalities in Canada have sophisticated recovery systems using blue, green, and grey bins/boxes to pre-sort material for diversion. The City of Toronto even uses the plastic shopping bag for its organics program by providing residents with a practical and easily accessible tool to use to collect their green waste.

Plastic Bags Enjoy Very High Reuse

The reuse and recycling of plastic shopping bags are key components of any diversion strategy. Plastic shopping bags are reused for many purposes, but the most common reuses are for managing household and pet waste, and organics. These uses eliminate the need to purchase heavier bags such as plastic kitchen catchers which contain up to 76% more plastic than a conventional plastic shopping bag.

Reuse rates for plastic shopping bags are very high. The 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/. In Manitoba, 91% of plastic shopping bags are reused. https://stewardshipmanitoba.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/205926-MMSM-2019-Annual-Report-WEB.pdf Ontario Ministry of the Environment data shows a 59.1% reuse/alternate use for plastic shopping bags in Ontario. https://www.rco.on.ca/ontario-plastic-bag-reduction-task-force

Click here for the 2007 Decima Study

Click here for the 2008 Decima Study

Click here for Clemson

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment Plastic Bag 50% Reduction Task Force reported in 2010 a 95% reuse and recycling rate for plastic shopping bags; 59% of which was reuse.

The City of Toronto Profile of Plastic Shopping Bag Usage

Toronto has an 84.8% reuse rate for plastic shopping bags. Of all bags entering Toronto’s waste system, 44% of them are used in the Toronto Green Bin organics program (Source: Toronto 2011 Diversion). By reducing the “yuk” factor, plastic bags play an active role in helping divert over 100,633 tonnes of organic materials from Toronto’s landfill. The use of plastic shopping bags for organics recycling is particularly important for high rise residents living in the city.

Impact of Switch from Plastic to Paper Bags on the Waste Management System

There are those who believe that a switch to paper bags from plastic bags will yield strong environmental and waste management benefits. That is not the case.

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 55 grams, for instance, while plastic bags weigh 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).

If the average garbage truck has an average 10 tonne capacity, an estimated 145 trucks per year to manage plastic bags would balloon to 1,183 trucks. This in turn would generate seven times the emissions from the additional trucks needed to ship the paper and manage it in the waste and recycling stream.  A switch to paper bags will also result in a 7-fold increase in solid waste management costs.