Killing the plastic bag won’t be that easy

Today is Blog Action Day, which as I already described is a really silly idea. But I’ll humour them anyway by talking about an environmental issue that has gotten a lot of press here recently: plastic bags.

Plastic shopping bags, especially those from grocery stores, are considered one of the bigger environmental issues facing us (they’re not actually such a huge issue, but they’re treated that way). They line streets, clog sewers, choke children and make crank-calls to your boss. They have a high volume and low weight, which makes recycling them inefficient.

So various jurisdictions are looking into ways to reduce or even eliminate this urban blight. Quebec is considering imposing a tax on them to reduce their usage, while a Maxi store in Sherbrooke has decided to eliminate them in favour of reusable bags, bins and favourable publicity.

Other countries around the world have taken different approaches to these bags since bout 2002 (Wikipedia has a roundup), most being a mixture of financial disincentives and voluntary compliance. So far (unless I missed one), no industrialized Western nation has banned them outright.

No magic answer

Plastic bags are clearly detrimental to the environment and their use should be heavily reduced. Even the plastics lobby thinks so (though their propaganda literature suggests otherwise). But the proposed solutions all have problems:

Taxes: Serge Lavoie of the plastics industry makes some good (albeit extremely self-serving) points about why this is problematic. Well, actually he makes three points, two of which are bullshit. He says plastic bags aren’t a problem, but then says they’re a minor problem, and then points to other problems and asks why we aren’t tackling those (I’ve heard similar arguments about why we shouldn’t criticize Israel for human rights violations). He also points to legislation and public opinion polls, which only proves that their lobbyists are working hard. But the point that makes a lot of sense is that people are going to find ways around the law. It’s already happened in Ireland, where people are using bags that are worse for the environment but not subject to the tax. Simply put: when money is involved, the market will find a way around it.

Voluntary compliance: The argument against this one is simple: People say things that make them look good, but greed and laziness set in when nobody’s looking. People are already aware of the problem, and many are changing some of their habits, but voluntary compliance alone isn’t going to solve the problem.

As someone who does most of his grocery shopping lugging around a big green bin, I can attest to other problems with the system as it is now:

  • Bags are still considered proof-of-purchase. It’s ludicrous when you think about it, because it’s easy to slip something into a bag, but it’s how many stores distinguish between stuff you’ve bought and stuff you haven’t. Re-using bags leads to confusion and suspicion. Half the time when I go by the cash at Loblaws, the cashier has to ask me whether or not I’ve purchased the reusable bin I’m using.
  • Minor inconveniences at the cash. Aside from the aforementioned suspicion, there’s other annoying problems. Groceries are placed in bags automatically unless you ask for something different. Rebates offered for not taking plastic bags aren’t always applied. My favourite is when trying to use the self-checkout at Loblaws. Not only is the system geared for bags (using a bin means balancing it on the scale and hoping it doesn’t fall), but you need operator assistance before you can start scanning your groceries. If a big chain like Loblaws makes it difficult, imagine what it’s like for smaller places.
  • Remembering to bring your bags. I don’t own a car, and a lot of the time I do groceries it’s on the way home from something. So I don’t have my big cumbersome bin. Plastic bags are small enough to put in your pocket, but not everyone will think ahead necessarily.
  • Merchants give good PR about protecting the environment, but in reality they just don’t care. They have no problem polluting as much as they can behind the scenes. They build massive buildings with ultra-high ceilings and keep them super-heated in the winter and super-chilled in the summer with wide open doors. Merchants in San Francisco promised to put a lid on their plastic bag use to avoid a tax on them, but ended up doing nothing.

Outright banning: This extreme step has been proposed in some developing countries as well as many small cities and towns. But they run into similar problems as taxing above: people will simply find a way around the problem, and that way might have even worse environmental consequences.

Finally, any drastic measure also ignores the fact that most households have already found ways to reuse plastic bags. There are two most common:

  1. Garbage. Put the bag in the kitchen garbage can, dump everything unrecyclable in it, tie it up and throw it in the big garbage bin at the curb. Depending on your output, households can go through at least a couple of these each week. (That would survive a reduction, but not an elimination of plastic bags)
  2. Poop scooping. One or two bags a day, per dog, are used to scoop and dispose of dog poop.

In both these cases, an alternative would need to be found. Using no bags would be impractical, because humans would have to get their hands dirty touching the slimy grossness. Purchasing bags is an option, but would probably be unpopular since we currently get them free. Instead, I can imagine a lot of dog poop going unscooped as a result of this ban.

Biodegradable bags: This is the solution that seems to be the magic solution to all these problems. BioBag Canada certainly thinks so. But these bags are still in development, and very expensive compared to plastic bags. The industry also argues that biodegradable isn’t necessarily better in landfills, because it releases methane and carbon dioxide, while plastic bags just sit there and do nothing. Despite that, I think this will eventually be a favourable option.

Hypocrisy

Finally, I’ll add one bit of ludicrous hypocrisy to this debate: Cities who are starting green projects are requiring use of disposable bags where they aren’t necessary:

  • In Côte-Saint-Luc, residents who are part of a pilot curbside compost pickup project are being given a short supply of compostable bags, which they will then have to replenish by paying for them out of pocket. They then place these bags in a special bin that will be emptied into trucks. But why the middle man? Why not just throw your food scraps directly into this container? Yeah, stuff might stick to the inside, but what’s the worst that’ll happen? It’ll decompose?
  • Even worse, Ville-Marie has phased out recycling bins in favour of clear plastic bags that look a lot like garbage bags. They seem to think it’s better that way. Maybe they’re right, but I see a lot of confusion between garbage and recycling, bags ripped open by raccoons looking for food and homeless people looking for returnable containers. Not to mention that it costs money and looks awful.

Baby steps

So what’s my solution? Everything in moderation. Voluntary measures will probably be the most successful in the short term. You don’t want plastic bags clogging your sewers? Don’t bring them home from the grocery store. Bring reusable canvas bags when you shop. Get retailers to do more to encourage use of reusable bags and bins, as well as collecting used bags.

Innovative ways to reduce bag use, combined with phasing in of compostable/biodegradable bags where preferable, will probably be the eventual solution to this problem. But any solution has to be cheap, convenient, practical and aesthetic if it’s going to succeed. Trying to force it is asking for it to backfire.

5 thoughts on “Killing the plastic bag won’t be that easy

  1. Sacha

    Hey, Hi!
    As a Ville-Marie resident I can say that the clear plastic recycling bags really are a great idea. Our recycling as a household has gone way up – partitally because we no longer have to pre-sort our recycling; bottles, cans, cardboard and plastic all go into the same bag. We are no longer faced with the two compartment green/blue box and what goes where dilemma (or irritating notes from the city thanking us for our effort and inviting us to pre-sort our recycling).
    As for the homeless going through your recycling – we put our refundables in a seperate bag and GIVE them to the guys who come around looking to make a bit of change (and No, they do not rip open the bags looking for bottles and cans – they pick them up, look at them from all angles, undo the knot if there is something worthwhile and re-knot the bags when they’re finished).
    Animals do not go through our recycling either. Everything in the bags are prewashed.
    I can’t speak for the few exceptions who use their recycling bags as free trash bags – they are thankfully few and far between and they deserve all the mess they get.
    Lastly, the neighbourhood, since the bagged recycling experiment has gone from one of the dirtiest to one of the cleanest.

    Reply
  2. blork

    Regarding the grocery bags, you’re correct that using re-usable bags isn’t convenient for everybody. Most re-usable bags are bulky and not the kind of things that you carry around on a daily basis.

    But there are really tiny nylon bags that you can get buy that take up no space at all. For example, I have a black nylon bag that I bought in a store on St. Denis. When it’s folded up and stuffed into its pouch it’s about the size of two (soft) golf balls. Unfolded, it’s about the size of a conventional disposable plastic grocery bag.

    While most of my grocery buying is done on deliberate trips to the grocery store, in which I take my heavy-duty reusable bags, I always have that wee nylon bag in my shoulder bag, and I use it when I make unscheduled stops at the pharmacy or the depanneur, etc.

    Such bags are a bit hard to find, but I’m seeing them more and more. They’re not a panacea, but they’re a small step towards reducing (not eliminating — that will never happen) the amount of disposable bags we use.

    And on a larger, global note, even if we eliminated disposable plastic bags, that wouldn’t solve all the problems. But when you look at the larger problem of over-consumption in general, it’s a step in the right direction, and is a small daily reminder to consume less in general.

    Reply
  3. f. panic

    Your post is great at covering some of the issues around this controversy. Like you, I don’t own a car and often have to pick up a few things on my way home, and it does cause me a surprising amount of guilt when I have to get a plastic bag – but usually, I tote around a compact one, similar to the one blork describes.

    I am surprised at your remark that plastic bags are “not actually such a huge issue.” Similar to the link you provided about plastic bags in Nepal, etc… It was truly alarming when I travelled around southeast Asia 5 years ago to see the amount of plastic bag waste lying in the streets (and everywhere up and down the Mekong – people throw their garbage in a plastic bag and then throw that bag in the water…. not to mention the abandoned water bottles, because, naturally, no one wants to drink Cambodian tap water!).

    When I lived in Edmonton/Calgary/Banff/Vancouver, I would always trek to the local grocery stores with my backpack – no hassles, no problem, often the cashiers would thank me. It was a bit of a shock to learn how intolerant many grocery stores are here towards customers not wanting a plastic bag. More than intolerant – incredibly rude, at times. Yep, it does take a few extra minutes to pack my groceries into my backpack so my bread doesn’t get squished, but trust me, I’m fast.

    I like what blork said: it’s a step in the right direction, and is a small daily reminder to consume less in general.

    Thanks for the thorough posting!

    Reply
  4. Andy

    Good blog, thoughtful post.
    No simplistic thinking here. Plastics are very cool and we use them all over. (How are you reading this?)

    The new recyclable bags fold up small, expand hugely and don’t get too grubby looking (so far) and the 5¢ discount means they pay for themselves quickly. This is way better than the last round of mass consumer environmentalism.

    We’ve halved our plastic bag use. It’s a positive step, like Ed wrote, but until we have biodegradable bags, I’m not for taxing or elimanating them.

    We use plastic bags for indoor garbage cans, kid lunches and cat litter.
    If we don’t get plastic bags free, we have to buy them. The grocery stores will monetize a freebie, but that’s no benefit to the environment, just a cash grab. Canadians have too much of that.

    Reply
  5. Chris Abraham

    Want to know something cooler than a plastic bag — cool being a good as well as a bad thing? Well, the internal-cumbustion-engine! Well, they’re bloody brilliant and they’re killing the planet, espcially in the US.

    http://www.energybill2007.org

    So, after years of inaction, Congress finally has a chance to pass meaningful energy legislation. The bill they are about to pass includes the best fuel economy standards ever (35 mpg by 2020) and a renewable electricity standard (15% by 2020) that guarantees the growth of renewable, clean energy. But there is a chance these two key advances won’t make it through to the final bill.

    I am working with a coalition to make sure Congress sends the president a strong energy bill with meaningful changes for our environment and planet. This legislation would be a monumental step toward stopping global warming. Go to http://www.energybill2007.org and sign the petition. This is our chance for real progress, don’t let Congress back down!

    Reply

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