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:
- 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)
- 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.
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.
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.