Environmental policy is complex. No easy answers. No silver bullets.
Policy on plastic shopping bags to protect the environment is complex. There are no silver bullets to solve the bag problem.
There are no simplistic solutions like bag bans that will not cause harm because of their unintended consequences. Science proves that reusable bags are not more environmentally friendly than plastic bags and can have health risks.
Popular environmentalism has it all wrong on bags. It does not follow the science. But unfortunately for us all, the noise around bags in some municipalities has reached such manic proportions that a science-does-not- matter and a-who-cares-about-the-facts attitude seems to be the guiding star in some municipal councils.
Good public policy is being replaced with virtue signaling by politicians rather a close examination of real environmental benefit and the unintended consequences of what impact a ban on plastic shopping bags will have on the environment, residents and local jobs.
Unintended consequences of bag bans
On bag policy, there are no easy fixes. There is no perfect bag.
Banning plastic shopping bags and mandating reusable bags in legislation will have a number of unintended consequences and end up hurting the environment, residents and local jobs.
Because implementing a good bag policy is just plain hard work based on the 3R’s of product stewardship and the wise and responsible use of all bags. A ban on plastic shopping bags will have the complete opposite impact from what is intended.
Because reusable bags have very serious environmental limitations and impacts that are being ignored by politicians pushing a bag ban agenda. And paper bags are just the worst option environmentally.
Reusable bags are not recyclable, are not reused enough to justify their replacing plastic shopping bags are the bag de jour. Reusable bags offer marginal environmental benefits if not used repeatedly which is why most bag legislation stipulates 125 reuses which does not happen.
Reusables are not recyclable
Reusable bags CANNOT BE RECYCLED in North America so they will end up in landfill as garbage at the end of their useful life. They cannot be given new life as other products like plastic shopping bags which are remade back into new bags, outdoor furniture, plastic lumber, office supplies.
And since reusable bags in most cases contain about 9 - 11 times more plastic than the simple plastic shopping bag; that is a lot more plastic ending up in landfill as a waste of resources and shortening the life of your city’s landfill.
Why are reusables not recyclable?
There are no standards guiding the manufacture of reusable bags, allowing producers to make the bags with different materials some of which are not recyclable. The use of different materials for example to add strength in the handles or the bag bottoms means that the bag has to be de-constructed to sort the different materials in order to be recycled. This makes recycling far too expensive and so far there just isn’t the technology available in North America to do it.
The Atlantic Noah Dillon - Are Reusables really good for the environment?
“For at least a few decades, Americans have been drilled in the superiority of tote bags. Reusable bags are good, we’re told, because they’re friendly for the environment. … [But] As the esteem of its environmental benefit has fallen, the tote has simultaneously grown in stature and ubiquity. … “
“Their abundance encourages consumers to see them as disposable, defeating their very purpose.”
“This low-grade, unfocused mania for averting impending ecological disaster seems to be more harmful than helpful, which is a problem throughout popular environmentalism.”
Reusables bags are the new disposable
Reusable bags are becoming ubiquitous. There are just so many of them. They are handed out as freebies in store promotions and sold by all grocery stores in Canada. Even governments across the country hand them out like candy without any consideration of their afterlife.
A recent social media survey of residents in Halifax in Atlantic Canada found that close to 76% of respondents owned 5 plus reusable bags with 56% owning 10 or more reusable bags. People have a lot of them which means a lot of waste reusable bags going to landfill at their end of life.
A 2011 analysis by Le Journal de Montreal found that by 2011, 13.5 million reusable bags had been distributed in Quebec (Source: Recyc Quebec)
The percent of grocery trips consumers that forget their 'reusable' bags is very high at 40% which means that they are constantly being replaced with new purchases and over time people accumulate a lot of bags.
Reusables bags are single purpose
A ban on plastic bags is futile. It is NOT going to eliminate plastic or plastic bags from the waste stream or landfill. Plastic bags have very high reuse rates in Canada in the range of 60- 77% according to government data across the country. The primary reuse of the bags is to manage household waste. Reusable bags would never be used to manage garbage because they are too resource intensive.
So all a ban is going to do is force people to purchase plastic kitchen catchers to manage their household waste. And these kitchen catchers can contain 50% MORE PLASTIC than the conventional bag; that gives you a consumption per capita of around 120 plastic bags. In Ireland, following the introduction of a bag tax, the sale of kitchen catchers increased 77%.
Reusables bags have a much higher carbon footprint
On Average Comparison of Carbon Footprint
Every life cycle study shows that reusables must be reused many, many times to offer an environmental benefit. The science shows that the plastic shopping bags have the lowest carbon footprint and global warming potential of all bags on the market.
According to the Quebec Government LCA, the Polypropylene woven (WPP) and PP non-woven bags (NWPP) need an equivalent number of reuses to equal the thin plastic bag ranging from 16 to 98 and 11 to 59, respectively, depending on the scenario and environmental indicator.
The U.K. Government study produced similar findings. The U.K. LCA found that
- A cotton reusable bag has to be reused 131 times to be as good environmentally as a plastic shopping bag used just once.
- Non-woven polypropylene bags would have to be reused 11 times to match environmentally the conventional thin bag used just once.
2011 U.K. Government Environment Agency Study Report 2011 - “A Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags”
Amount of Primary Use Required for Reusable Bags to Match Environmental Performance of Conventional Plastic Shopping Bag*
|Type of Carrier Bag||HDPE Bag
(No Secondary ReUse)
(40.3% reused as kitchen catchers)
(100% reused as kitchen catchers)
(reused 3 times)
|Non-woven PP Bag||11||14||26||33|
Graphic Look at the UK 2011 Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Bags (including reusables)
Source: BBC Magazine http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17027990
Reusables and your health
Food Poisoning in Canada
Each year 4 million Canadians – 1 in 8 Canadians -- are affected by a foodborne illness caused by bacteria, parasites and viruses. The data shows 11,600 hospitalizations and 238 deaths on average yearly, some of which are avoidable.
The most common culprits leading to death are the norovirus, literia monocytogenes , salmonella and e-coli 0157 (Escherichia coli 157)
Reusables bags pose a public health risk to users
When was the last time you washed that reusable bag you use to carry your groceries home from the store? Like most Canadians, how about next to never. A 2015 Crop Poll conducted in Montreal found that 66% of users rarely wash their reusable bag.
And this poses a big problem. Because these bags are reused frequently, they can pick up bacteria from the foods they carry, or from their environment (the ground, the closet, the back of your car or even items stored in them between grocery trips).
Study after study shows that reusable bags with repeated use pose a health risk from bacterial cross-contamination of the food. Unwashed reusable bags offer a fertile breeding ground for bacteria, parasites and viruses that can cause foodborne illness.
Norovirus & E-coli
Health Canada has issued numerous health alerts about the use of reusable bags since 2012 recommending that reusable bags be washed frequently, if not after every use, to avoid bacterial build up in the bag. http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/recall-alert-rappel-avis/hc-sc/2012/14998a-eng.php
Health Canada recommends the following safety tips to help to prevent cross-contamination of your food and food poisoning:
- Machine wash cloth bags frequently, especially after carrying fresh produce, meat, poultry or fish. Reusable grocery bags may not all be machine washable. If yours are not, you should wash them by hand frequently with hot soapy water.
- Put fresh or frozen raw meat, poultry and fish in separate bins or bags from fresh produce and other ready-to-eat foods.
- At store, put your fresh or frozen raw meat, poultry or fish in plastic bags (the clear bags found in the produce and some meat sections work well) to prevent the juices from leaking and contaminating your reusable bag and the food you are transporting.
- Fresh produce should also be put in plastic bags to help protect it from contamination.
- If you are using your grocery bags to store or transport non-food items, they should be washed thoroughly before using them for groceries.