Why A ban?
Single-use plastics have a significant environmental impact and provide a short-lived service that can be met more effectively and environmentally through reusable bags or re-used transport materials like cardboard. Reusable bags will reduce throw-away plastics in our landfills and our ecosystems, helping to reduce the negative impacts of single-use packaging. The city of Calgary will not reach it's 2020 landfill targets, and creating new landfills is a lengthy, costly and controversial process that affects all Calgarians via land use planning or taxation.
A study in San Jose, California revealed that their 2011 plastic bag ban reduced plastic debris by approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city, while Ireland’s plastic bag tax has led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag waste. Banning or taxing thin film plastic bags has been proven to significantly reduce single-use plastics.
Isn't REcycling my plastic bags better than putting them in the garbage?
Yes and no. Recycling rates of single-use plastics is still very low. Because protocols for recycling plastic bags are often not followed, plastic bags that do end up at recycling facilities cause headaches and slows recycling systems. Loose, lightweight bags are difficult to control and get caught in machinery, plugging sorters and causing jams and stopping work, driving up the cost of recycling.
Additionally, once sorted at the recycling facility, bags are shipped away since Canada does not have facilities to process them. Often, plastic bags are bundled and shipped to Asia, where they are recycled with little environmental control, exposing workers to toxic fumes and polluting local environments. The overall cost to recycle plastic bags is higher than the value of the re-processed material.
San Francisco’s Department of Waste recently calculated it paid $4,000 a tonne to recycle
plastic bags. Its resale price for the recycled product? $32. “Nobody wants it. There’s no
value. It doesn’t make sense,” says Joseph Gho, CEO of EPI Environmental Products Inc.,
a Vancouver manufacturer of biodegradable plastics. “Besides the financial, the economic
cost, you’ve got the environmental cost” of recycling unwanted material. “The trucks running
out there, burning fuel … you have to use energy, you’ve got CO2 emissions.”
WHAT ABOUT Degradable, BIODEGRADABLE and COMPOSTABLE BAGS? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE AND SHOULD WE JUST USE THOSE INSTEAD?
Compostable bags are not intended for use as carryout bags, they're specifically for bin liners such as those used in Calgary's Green Bin program. These bags biodegrade in a commercial composting facility.
Degradable bags are not the same as biodegradable. Chemical compounds are added to make the plastic crumble more quickly - into more pieces of plastic. The problem of environmental microplastics is only worsened with this type of bag - while the bag is visually removed from the environment, the mass is simply divided into the small pieces of plastic that plague marine animals, birds and mammals, concentrating up the food web.
Biodegradable bags degrade with the help of microorganisms under certain conditions, like temperature and moisture. If not disposed of correctly, these bags end up as litter and might not break down at all. Landfills aren't designed for items to biodegrade and under strict monitoring have very little oxygen and little water. Items mostly compact, rather than breakdown. The biodegradation that takes place in landfills is minimal, under landfill conditions biodegradable bags are no different than conventional single use plastic bags.
but what if I USe my plastic bags more than once?
While some people might re-use their plastic bags, most people don't. Canadians are using on average 300 plastic bags a year, and even after using a plastic bag a few extra times, most bags end up in the landfill. Single-use plastic bags were created by the manufacturer to be used once and thrown away. This is why many bags barely make the trip home, ripping at the handles or tearing from the corners of a carton of juice. There is a staggering amount of single use plastic in our systems and we have better, more sustainable solutions.
Don't Paper and Cloth bags pollute too?
They do. Every choice we make has an impact.
Forestry operations and the pulping process are resource intensive and come with their own set of environmental problems. Additionally, the paper industry creates millions of tons of waste per year. Since paper bags are also heavier, fuel costs to transport them are higher, and paper recycling is energy intensive and often inefficient. While paper does have a leg up biodegrading in the environment, with little exposure to oxygen and water, reports show that paper doesn't biodegrade much faster than plastic in landfills.
Cotton bags come with the inherent environmental impact of conventional cotton harvesting - cotton production relies on herbicides to defoliate the plant before harvest, fertilisers and pesticides for growth and energy for processing. A cotton bag needs to be reused many times to make up for it's associated environmental impact. While organic cotton is better, both kinds of cultivation are water intensive.
Woven and non woven polypropylene bags, particularly made from recycled materials come out on top in life cycle assessments, requiring the lowest amount of reuse to makeup for their footprint, but as with anything - too many can be a problem. These bags are still made of plastic and can still be a landfill problem, and as the newest swag item, having too many defeats the purpose.
Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing their impact is to reuse it as many times as possible and have less of them. More information on bag life cycle assessment can be found here.
WHAT ABOUT BAGS FOR VEGETABLES AND MEAT IN STORES AND OTHER PLASTIC BAGS LIKE NEWSPAPER AND DRY-CLEANING BAGS? ARE THEY ALSO BANNED?
In most municipal bag bans, these types of bags are excluded. Bulk item bags, garbage bags, pet waste bags etc are all still permissible in municipal bag bans. There are opportunities for you to challenge yourself to further curb your disposable plastic use, such as using reusable bulk containers, cloth produce bags, etc. There is a ton of single-use plastics in our lives and a lot of opportunity to work collectively to make a change for the future!
Photo by Midwinter Photo