Were City Councillors In The Bag When They Voted For Plastic Ban?

- June 7th, 2012

Plastic shopping bags are bad — and good (relatively speaking).

In voting to ban single-use plastic bags come Jan. 1, Toronto City Council has chosen to chase optical illusions rather than focus on realistic environmental responsibility.

There was almost no debate and absolutely no input from environmental experts or legal advisers or, God forbid, ordinary citizens.

A few months ago I would probably have applauded such reckless bravado. But in March I looked into the whole issue of shopping-bag environmental responsibility.

I was shocked to discover that the production of paper and cloth shopping bags leave far bigger carbon footprints than the production of so-called single-use plastic bags.

Granted, plastic bags must be used responsibly. I think I do. I use every plastic bag at least twice, often three or four times. I don’t use many of them but I do use them for a variety of purposes in my daily life, quite apart from just hauling groceries home from the store.

A paper bag, by contrast, HAS to be used at least three times to be on a carbon-equal basis with a plastic bag that is used just ONCE. When was the last time you used a paper bag more than once?

And a canvas or cotton shopping bag HAS to be used 131 TIMES to be on an equal footing (carbon-footprint-wise) with a single-use plastic bag.

Want to know more?

Here’s a Nosey Parker blog post from March 20 on the whole issue.

I’m NOT a big fan of plastic bags but I was surprised — and sometimes shocked — by what I discovered when I opened this bag of monkeys. Read on.

celebrity-shopping

Some celebrity bags: Plastic? Paper? Cloth? Decisions, decisions.

 

I’m half in the bag right now.

 

Half in the plastic shopping bag, that is. And I’ll probably stay that way for a while.

 

First of all, let me say that I hate plastic bags with a passion. Discarded plastic bags are a blight on the urban and rural landscape, a menace to the environment and most living creatures, and they’re often too flimsy to do their primary job properly in the first place.

 

But I also love plastic bags. I don’t have to lug reusable bags all over town if the grocery store is my last stop in a busy schedule. If I’m delivering something (anything — a book, a sweater, a bottle of wine, a cake), I just pop it in an anonymous plastic bag and leave the bag behind (for the recipient to deal with). I store everything from other plastic bags to old notebooks to nuts and bolts in plastic bags at home. And I would be lost without plastic bags for garbage pail liners and animal waste disposal.

plasticbag

(I know, I know, I could pay extra money for biodegradable plastic bags specifically designed to catch garbage, cat litter or  dog doo — but why, then, aren’t the grocery store’s plastic bags biodegradable? And there’s a serious downside to biodegradable plastics — they produce carbon dioxide, methane and/or other greenhouse gases when they decompose.)

 

So there’s a place for disposable plastic bags in my universe. That place just isn’t blowing down a sidewalk or waving madly from a tree branch or clogging a storm drain.

 

Now I’m not preaching here (except the part about not letting plastic bags blow around the countryside like toxic dandruff or clog the oceans). I’m just explaining my starting point as I try to figure out the facts — which seem to be pushing me in a particular, surprising direction.

 

The surprising part is that there seem to be a couple of bag villains bigger than plastic — and I naively used to think they were the good guys.

brown-paper-bags

We’re so used to being hit over the head with the propaganda that all plastic bags are bad that it’s hard to accept that the most environment-friendly alternative to a plastic bag might be … a plastic bag.

 

Really.

 

And this spin isn’t coming from the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition (yes, there really is such an organization in California).

 

Jurisdictions around the world from San Francisco to Rwanda to Bangladesh have already banned one-time-use plastic bags. Italy last year banned non-biodegradable single-use plastic bags. Other jurisdictions from Ireland to Toronto (despite Mayor Rob Ford’s antipathy) try to reduce their use by imposing a charge or tax on each disposable bag.

 

The European Union, despite its preoccupation with keeping member states solvent, is currently considering a total ban on the bags as it tries to cut back on the 100 billion plastic bags Europeans go through every year. (That’s nothing compared to the 120-billion-plus plastic bags used annually by Americans  and Canadians — and Europe’s population is almost 50% bigger than the United States and Canada combined).

 

As it moves ponderously forward in its decision-making process, the European Union has amassed a lot of facts and figures for consideration.   And Britain’s Environment Agency last year published  a “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags.”

 

Thankfully we have the BBC to sort out all that confusing data for us. Here’s the BBC’s simple graphic to explain the comparison.

One-use-graphic

 

In other words, the production of a paper bag cause three times as much greenhouse gas emission as the production of a plastic bag. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic “bag for life” causes four times as much greenhouse gas in its production. And the production of A REUSABLE COTTON SHOPPING BAG SPEWS 131 TIMES AS MUCH GREENHOUSE GAS INTO THE ATMOSPHERE as the production of a single-use plastic bag.

canvas-grocery-bag

So, although a reusable cotton or canvas carryall seems BY FAR the best choice for an ecologically conscious shopper, you would have to use that bag 132 times before you outweighed the damage to the ozone layer caused by the use of plastic bags. How many people are really, truly going to use that ratty old cotton bag after, say, the 90th or 100th time?

 

 

What’s a carbon footprint?

 

According to the UK’s Carbon Trust, a non-profit organization created by the British government to help that country reduce its carbon emissions,

 

“A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organization, event or product. The carbon footprint considers all six of the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gases: Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).”

 

 

Different studies produce different figures. A report produced for Los Angeles County when it banned plastic bags last year concluded a cloth bag would have to be used 104 times before its greater environmental impact (compared to a plastic bag) was neutralized. The difference seems to be that one study was looking at just carbon footprinting and the other was considering the full spectrum of environmental impact. Given the after-effect of plastic-bag garbage, I’ve got to believe the overall environmental impact is understated.

 

But using just the UK Environment Agency figures, here’s an example:

 

If I have six cloth shopping bags and I use two of them at a time to go shopping three times a week, it would take me MORE THAN 7-1/2 YEARS to be on the carbon-footprint upside of disposable plastics bags.

 

As for paper bags, who re-uses a paper bag even once, let alone two times? What am I going to re-use a paper bag for, apart from storing mushrooms or as fire-starter?

LCBObags

I used to feel quite virtuous when I walked out of the LCBO carrying my paper bag(s) of booze. Not anymore.

 

The difference becomes even more pronounced when the “one-use” plastic bag is reused. Here’s the BBC’s graphic comparison:

 

3-reuse-graphic

 

Sooooo, by far the best alternative to a plastic bag (in my books, anyway) is a plastic bag — a heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag with handles (the kind the supermarkets sell for $1 or $2), the so-called “bag for life.”

Bag-for-life

Even if you don’t keep it hanging around for life, you’re way ahead of the carbon footprint game within a few weeks and every usage after that is a bonus.

 

So I’ll keep the cloth bags I have and keep using them until they rot or rip, but I’ll never buy another. And I’m going to stop having my LCBO purchases brown-paper-bagged. The booze goes in my backpack now and the groceries go in a “bag for life” (if I have one with me).

sobeysbagforlife

And I’ll still get some one-use plastic bags on the occasional shopping expedition because I still need ‘em.

 

As for anyone carrying around a designer canvas shopping bag like the one below (by Anya Hindmarsh), stop it. You may not be a plastic bag but you are being a complete hypocrite.

canvas-bag

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11 comments

  1. sara whyte says:

    You have taken away freedom of choice from the people…by FORCING this decision onto the people,who by the way are suppose to be living in a FREE COUNTRY>.. shame shame shame on you :you are bullies and abuse your power..

  2. bag lady says:

    Don’t forget that the time to degrade is just as important as carbon footprint.
    Paper bag- 3-4 weeks
    Cotton bag- 1-5 months
    Plastic Bag – 500-1,000 years (some scientists say never)

    So looking at that, which is the better choice now? I’ll take the paper/cotton bags any day….

  3. Rod Sheridan says:

    Yes Alan, using a non disposable plastic bag is the best environmental and financial solution.

    My non disposable bags are into their 150th use (aproximately), not a bad investment for a buck each.

    It was nice to see a regressive move (removing the bag fee) morph into a progressive move, even if the originator didn’t intend it to be progressive.

    Regards, Rod.

  4. Howard Scott says:

    Cotton bags can be used hundreds of times, so they win with regard to carbon footprint. But carbon footprint is only one part of the problem. Plastic bags are a huge pollution problem when they’re not disposed of properly, which is very often the case. The liquor commission in Quebec no longer provides any non-reusable bags. People buying a bottle or two often leave with no bag. What’s the carbon footprint of no bag?

  5. Michael Wilson says:

    Or even better:

    Turn those one-time use plastic bags into heavy-duty multiple use plastic bags by re-constructing them.

    My mother learned about “plarn” (plastic yarn), whereupon you cut a one-time use plastic bag into strips (cut off the bag handles, split open the bottom of the bag, and then spiral cut the remaining “tube” into one long strip about 2cm wide; you can get a couple of meters from one bag), tie the ends of the strips together, and twist it all into yarn. Then crochet or knit this into useful things.

    She has made “disposable” doormats and bathmats this way, as well as heavy-duty shopping bags that can easily be used many many times before wearing out, among other creative things things (even clothing). She uses different colors of bags to create different patterns and effects, too.

  6. Kim says:

    I can easily use a cloth bag 130 times. Shopping weekly or more often you hit that in just over a couple of years. The bags easily last that long. Just a hint Alan – you can wash them you know and they last a very long time so they are not the entirely the poor choice you suggest. They are certainly not however as good as we would like to think. One important fact is that you can grow a new cloth bag with natural fibres but it is not so easy to a grow new oil to make the plastic. Whatever you use – use it responsibly.

  7. Kelly Manning says:

    I’m still using Ripstop Nylon bags I bought from Safeway in the 1980s.

    what does that work out to as Carbon foot print for 100 uses per year for over 25 years?

    If they get dirty I just put them them in with next load of light laundry.

    Most of the “cloth” bags on the market these days are recycled polypropylene from drink bottles.

    Very few people use cotton reusable bags, although I still use some Canvas bags I got at IBM courses in the 1990s. Again, when they get dirty I just toss them in with other laundry.

  8. Al says:

    The Tesco “Bag for Life” that you show actually sells for 10p in England (about 16 cents). There’s no reason they couldn’t be sold for the same price here.

  9. Keith M says:

    132 times seems like a lot, but my family has had the same cotton bags for at least the last 6 years. So, i mean if we grocery shop once a week and use all of those bags that is more than 300 uses in our case. The math isn’t all that bad.

  10. Russ says:

    I remember an Ontario manufacturer that lobbied the Provincial Government with grocery bags that were made from corn that broke down quickly in the landfill sites, but the grocery stores said that they could buy millions of plastic bags from India for mere pennies compared to the corn bags. So it’s always about the $$$ and that’s why this by-law has gone coast to coast…PROFITS! I read a book called ” The World without us” and the scientists agreed that nature one day will create an enzyme that will finally make plastic a food for itself, the question then will be…What will we humans keep OUR food in?

  11. mike strobel says:

    First-rate piece, Mr. Parker.

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