Should Cities Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags?
Plastic bag waste. Credit: Zainub Razvi
As Montreal debates whether or not it should ban plastic bags, it's an opportunity for me to express my opinion on the subject, yet again. Toronto began charging a 5¢ fee for all plastic bags in mid-2009. A few years later that ever-forward-thinking mayor, Rob Ford, decided to eliminate the bag charge.
In mid-2010 I did some research to see what effect the policy had had on single-use plastic bag consumption within Toronto (you can read that article here). In a nutshell, the 5¢ charge reduced plastic bag use in grocery stores by 70%. It was an effective policy mechanism that allowed consumers to make a choice about whether they wanted to pay for bags or bring their own.
Last year when New York City was debating charging 10¢ per single use bag, not surprisingly, the American Progressive Bag Alliance was outraged and sent out a press release saying:
Denying that this legislation is a tax is disingenuous to the hardworking residents of New York City. This proposed ordinance will drive up the cost of already expensive groceries for New Yorkers while failing to achieve any environmental goals.
In California there will be an outright ban on all single use plastic bags introduced through bill SB 270 which comes into effect on July 1, 2015. Now, it should be noted that the bill permits alternatives to single-use plastic bags such as multi-use bags made with a component of post-recycled plastic content and post-consumer recycled paper bags which can be purchased for 10¢ each. It also appears that certain types of stores (such as convenience stores) aren't included in the bill until July, 2016.
The website plasticoceans.net notes: "In 2010, 300 million tonnes of plastic will be made – about half of this will be used just once then thrown away." According to this site, over one million plastic bags are used around the world every minute. The negative effects of plastic bags as waste are tremendous. They clog city sewer systems and cities such as New York deal with over 1700 tons of plastic bags per week and cost more than $12.5 million to dispose of them. When they get into the aquatic environment, they can also be mistaken as a food source. [source] Just type in "plastic ocean" in Google images and you will see images of sealife that has intermingled with plastic that will make your stomach turn.
The point of this information is to show that regardless of what route a city decides to take, the epidemic of plastic bag use needs to be addressed, and quickly. So, should a ban be placed or should there simply be a charge per single bag? And should it be for all single bag types (plastic and paper) or just plastic?
We need to look at the consequences of banning bags with respect to the larger picture of its effect on the retail environment — and a healthy retail environment is good for cities' bottom lines. In cities such as New York and Montreal which not only cater to residents but also to significant numbers of tourists, banning single-use plastic bags may do more harm than good. While I carry a convenience fold-up bag in my purse at all times, I'm not about to stash a few more bags in my purse when I travel. If I'm a tourist in New York and I want to purchase some items — and let's face it, it's hard to leave New York without purchasing something — I need something to put them in.
What about reusable plastic bags?
In an age where reusable bags are being given out more and more often, I find myself with more durable bags than I know what to do with. In fact, these bags can completely off-set the intended environmental good of the bag ban in the first place since it takes about 28 plastic bags to make one reusable bag. Case in point: the SAQ (the Société des alcools du Québec — where you buy decent wine and liquour) no longer carries any single use bags, paper or plastic, and instead offers empty wine/liquour boxes or reusable bags for purchase.
While I have never bought a single bag, our house now has over 15 of them. Sure, it might point to the need for an intervention for our household, but beyond that, what am I going to do with all these bags? They are beverage specific and only allow four bottles max. I use a few of them for groceries and stuff concentrated frozen juices, condiments, and sparkling water bottles in them, but that's about all they can handle.
A charge per single use bag, on the other hand, while unpleasant and may have tourists rolling their eyes, at least provides the opportunity for people who either forgot to bring their reusable bags, or tourists who don't want to bring along bags when they travel, to purchase their items and have somewhere to put them.
Given the fact that a simple 5¢ fee had the effect of shrinking plastic bag use by 70% within a year, I believe that a small fee per single bag is the most effective method of reducing plastic bag consumption, regardless of the type of bag offered as the alternative.