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Taking aim at single-use plastics is basically a matter of making a statement

There are usually a few reusable shopping bags in my car. They don’t always make the trip inside when I pull up to a store, however. With Ottawa looking to make good on its pledge to ban single-use plastics, that may have to change.

All of us are going to have get into the habit of bringing our own bags instead of relying on the plastic ones provided by the merchants. It’s one of the few instances where we’re going back to what our grandmothers did.

Watching people lug their own bags and baskets into supermarkets, I’m reminded how people like my grandmother used to sport their own shopping bags, and could be seen lugging items home in a pull-cart. That certainly was far more environmentally friendly than exchanging plastic for cotton then dumping the groceries into the back of an eight-cylinder SUV.

The shopping bag has perhaps the highest profile of the items the federal government this week pledged to eliminate. Also on the list are straws, stir sticks, cutlery, ring carriers and takeout containers. The manufacture and imports of those single-use plastics are banned as of December this year. Providing time to clear out existing stock, Ottawa has decreed the sale of such items will come into effect in December 2023.

The feds argue that over the next decade, the move will result in the elimination of some 1.3 million tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastic waste and more than 22,000 tonnes of plastic pollution, the equivalent to more than a million garbage bags full of litter. In Canada, up to 15 billion plastic checkout bags are used every year and approximately 16 million straws are used daily. Single-use plastics like these make up most of the plastic litter found on shorelines across Canada. 

As we debate the future of the plastic bag, it’s easy to forget they’re a relatively recent issue in the numbers seen today.

When I was growing up, groceries were packed in paper bags. Later, “paper or plastic” entered the equation, giving way to plastic by default – first introduced in the 1970s, the bags became ubiquitous, accounting for four out of every five used at the supermarket.

So successful has been the transition, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates upwards of one trillion plastic bags are manufactured worldwide each year.

In the last few years, however, the bag has become a symbol of our disregard for the environment. The resultant backlash led to bans in some jurisdictions, while others have imposed a per-bag cost on convenience. The latter can be seen in grocery stores around here.

There are plenty of good reasons for cutting back on our use of plastic bags. While recycling programs do exist, participation rates are typically low. The bags are made from petroleum, with each placing a demand on dwindling supplies. Many simply end up in landfills where they can take decades to decompose. Worse still, many of the bags simply scatter, their shape and light weight allowing the wind to move them with ease. The result can be unsightly trash gathering in ditches and hedgerows. But more seriously they end up in waterways, where marine mammals try to eat them or choking birds and other wildlife.

Plastic bags and other trash wash up on far distant shores, even in some of the most pristine locales. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of our junk, much of it plastic in various stages of disintegration, estimated at twice the size of the state of Texas – are a revealing indication of just what we’re capable of doing to the planet.

That’s what prompted support for Canada’s action among organizations such as the Sierra Club.

“We are happy that our voices were heard and that these changes were made. But it shouldn’t have to take this long. We know Canadians want to see action on plastic pollution, and hope that in the future, these changes can come much quicker. We don’t have another four years to spare,” says Lucy Bain, problem with plastics coordinator with Sierra Club Ontario.

“This is not the end, it is only the beginning of what needs to be done to tackle the plastic crisis we have created. Hot and cold drink cups, sachets, produce bags and cigarette filters are just a few more examples of the plastic that we are seeing in our environment every day. The next step is identifying these additional harmful single-use plastics and getting them added to the list quickly.”

With all that downside, however, there is an argument to be made in support of the lowly plastic bag.

Perhaps like me you use bags to line your trashcan. Others use them for scooping up Rover’s offerings. Or perhaps as lunch bags or general totes (though hopefully not the same ones used for the first two examples). That would adhere to the second of the three Rs (reuse), though perhaps the first (reduce) is more applicable here.

The plastics and packaging industries have naturally attempted to counter the anti-bag movement, in much the same way they’ve joined in on the backlash against bottled water. Self-serving, obviously, but there are some points to ponder. Plastic bags are in some ways more environmentally friendly than the former mainstay of grocery shopping, paper.

According to the plastics industry, plastic bags require 40 per cent less energy to produce than paper, generate 80 per cent less solid waste and produce 70 per cent fewer atmospheric emissions. Their lighter weight makes them easier to transport, saving fuel on both the distribution and recycling sides.

Transportation costs – in dollars and energy – also come into play with the argument against reusable plastic bags, which are about 15 times heavier and often made overseas versus the domestically made plastic bags. Even reusable cotton bags have their problems given that cotton is both fossil fuel intensive and reliant on pesticides.

With plastics, much of them end up in our environment, particularly waterways. Only about nine per cent of Canada’s plastic waste is recycled each year, leaving 2.8 million tonnes in landfill sites, or worse. And as we find it increasingly difficult to ship our problems offshore, some domestic action is required. Thus the single-use plastic ban now being rolled out.

The choice, then, may not be as easy as it seems at first blush. Still, coming first on the list of three Rs, reduce should be the first priority.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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