Tag Archives: plastic-bags

The plastic bag drought one year later

My still unempty bag of plastic bags

It’s Earth Day, and it’s been a year since major grocery stores decided to charge five cents a bag in an effort to rid this planet of the lightweight plastic menace. (Though subsequent events have shown that dedication to be not so absolute.)

I was worried when I switched from the plastic bags to my green bin that I would have a problem with one of my main uses for plastic bags: garbage containment. Like many people I imagine, the plastic grocery bags become garbage can liners, which are then tied up and thrown in the big garbage can to head to the curb. Without this source of bags, what would I put my garbage in? I still get the occasional plastic bag from non-grocery purchases, but not enough to satisfy that habit, I thought.

As it turns out, it wasn’t so much of a problem. I just started using other types of plastic bags to store my garbage: 4L milk bags, Subway sandwich bags, bread bags, bags from take-out purchases (though I usually decline them when offered).

The only difference is that these bags are smaller, which means they need to be changed more often and they won’t fit into the large kitchen garbage can. I have them hanging off a doorknob until I can think of something better.

Even then, the number coming in is larger than the number going out. Rather than needing a new source for plastic bags, I need to find a way to reduce their consumption even further.

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.


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.

Please leave your bags at the tax office

Plastic bag
“A Plastic Bag” by currybet

Quebec is considering a $0.20 per bag tax on plastic shopping bags. The intent is to cut down on their production, use and disposal.

I’m in favour of reducing the use of these bags. I have a green basket I use when doing grocery shopping. Those few bags I do use get reused to hold what little garbage I produce, and any which aren’t usable get recycled.

I’m even in favour of charging for bags. Something small, like $0.05 per bag, won’t make a big difference to the people who burn through money, but it might make some think twice about double-bagging that milk or using an extra one for the can of concentrated orange juice.

But I’m not crazy about the idea of a tax, that benefits neither the consumer nor the retailer, encouraging both to find a way around it. There’s an (admittedly self-serving) opinion in the Toronto Star which explains some of the cons to such a tax. Basically it comes down to the fact that people need something to carry their groceries in. In some cases this means finding loopholes — those bags which for some technical reason aren’t subject to the tax, and may be worse for the environment.

That’s basically my issue. We need an alternative. The green baskets are great, but they have a high initial cost (around $5), and you need to lug them around. The re-usable bags also require forethought, and might not be sufficient to carry a week’s worth of groceries. Their use should be encouraged beyond the $0.05 per bill rebate that Loblaws offers, but it’s not a complete solution. What about smaller stores? What about department stores like Wal-Mart? What about those clear bags we put fruit in? What about all that excessive packaging that’s used on electronics?

That, combined with the fact that plastic bags still seem to be the method a lot of places use as proof of purchase.

Once we handle these things, then we can talk about drastic measures to reduce bags. In the meantime, I don’t get why stores don’t charge a small amount per bag, and offer more incentives for people to bring their own bags (like, say, ending the policy of everyone having to surrender their bags at the cash when they enter).

UPDATE: The Gazette’s Max Harrold has some man-on-the-street reaction to the idea.