Bag Choices Today; Regrets or Regrowth Tomorrow

Are we doomed to see history repeat itself, or can the Canadian Government design a pathway forward that will work in harmony with Mother Nature?

Dear Federal Government, watch where you (mis)step, we’re on thin ice with Mother Nature.

We’ve all heard the message – the Federal Government is planning to ban single-use plastics. This ban was in motion before the life-shifting pandemic that threw our world into chaos and shelved many best-intended plans. Since the single-use plastics ban went from being a hot ticket agenda item to being shelved, the work that was done to determine how to proceed has unfortunately been reset, and it’s starting again. 

Of course, we are definitely in support of banning single-use plastics, especially the shopping bag variety. But we are truly terrified of a serious miss-step that seems to be trending when policy-makers don’t look at the big picture. We have an incredible opportunity to help build some faith back in humanity and send us in a direction that actually lets us live in harmony with nature rather than the typical viral-like behaviour that has given us humans a bad rap…in Mother Nature’s eyes that is. At times like these, I am sure Mother Nature looks at us as a mother watches her naughty children, and the oncoming trainwreck, just as they are about to do something really stupid. Hoping feverishly the death stare she is giving them will be enough to stop their current trajectory, so she won’t have to resort to a good old spanking. Well, we are on the verge of a really good spanking if we don’t make drastic changes in our behaviour and make the right decision now.

Luckily, we also are blessed to live in a time of incredible innovation and care for the environment. We have been around long enough to learn from history if we just open our eyes a little to see the writing on the wall. This age of information-sharing shows us that we are not alone and can glean valuable information from other countries’ successes and mistakes.

It’s not the first time single-use plastics, especially shopping bags, have been banned. We are not the first country to attempt banning single-use plastics. Sadly, many of these attempts have failed miserably and the one consistent contributing factor to the failure, is these policies have not allowed or provided a viable alternative to single-use plastic bags. 

India is a prime example. Back in June 2018, India announced they were baning these plastics by January 1, 2022. As the deadline was approaching they noticed some serious issues. “The foremost factor is the lack of alternatives to SUPs and the government’s failure in promoting them. Also, the proper infrastructure has been an issue as well”. Read more here. 

California struggled with successfully removing plastic waste when they decided to ban single-use plastic shopping or carryout bags back in 2016. Eliminating 40 million pounds of plastic carryout bags fell dramatically short due to the 12 million pound increase in the use and disposal of purchased trash bags to replace them, “with small, medium, and tall trash bag sales increasing by 120%, 64%, and 6%, respectively,” as cited in a study performed in 2019 entitled Bag leakage: The effect of disposable carryout bag regulations on unregulated bags

We don’t even have to look that far to see some epic fails in our attempt to ban single-use plastic bags. Toronto implemented a ban on single-use plastics back in 2012 and in short order, the ban was reversed on Jan. 1, 2013, all thanks to the lack of suitable alternatives. At the time, what was expected to replace single-use plastics was paper, which completely blew up in the City Council’s face. Retailers were immediately outraged at how expensive the alternative was compared to their regular bags and how their customers were not happy with the unreliability of the paper bags. The cost increase of using paper was more than retailers could bear and was enough to influence a reversal of the ban. 

We are still seeing this problem in areas that have already banned plastic bags and are forcing retailers to switch to paper. A small business in Vancouver had to switch from plastic to paper bags as a result of the newly implemented ban. According to an article by Global News, “because paper takes up more space, she can only order 250 bags at a time and is unable to obtain the same volume discount plastic afforded, at $0.17 per unit. Simpson said she’s paying $0.48 per unit for paper bags and charging her customers $0.25 for each bag. “I am losing money on every single bag,” she told Global News.” Although retailers are largely willing to switch away from plastics, they simply cannot be expected to redesign business practices to accommodate the use of unsuitable alternatives. 

As you can imagine, we are extremely engaged, paying very close attention to what is happening in our own country and beyond our borders surrounding this issue. What we are seeing is concerning. The Federal Government has recognized that something needs to be done, which is great. However, guess what are the two alternatives the Federal Government is considering to allow? Paper and reusable bags (most are made from a thicker form of plastic that is far more harmful to the environment than their single-use counterparts). Are we not open to learning from past failures? Both alternatives being proposed are destined to replay exactly what has been identified as shortcomings from the above examples.

The challenge here is that without an alternative solution to replace these plastics – bags, in particular – we run the risk of creating a bigger problem. The Federal Government has already acknowledged in their proposal that, in the effort to remove 1.6 million tons per year of waste from the waste stream being generated by single-use plastics, they risk adding 3.2 million tons of waste per year with their proposed alternatives. How does this even make sense? 

Now let’s look at potential epic fail number two. In the effort to do something, the Federal Government, and some municipalities who have jumped the gun, are lumping in compostable alternatives with traditional single-use plastics. Essentially tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Many areas of Canada are concerned about compostable alternatives, and thanks to greenwashing and lack of labelling standards, not all compostables on the market are made equal. This is a problem that is actually quite easy to fix, as mentioned in previous articles, with some labelling standards, certification requirements, and a little education. However, paper is being touted as the acceptable alternative over certified compostables, even though certified compostable bags essentially have the same benefits as paper, are more reliable for consumers, cost less money and are less harmful to the environment when considering their entire lifecycle.

Fun fact: if certified compostable bags are allowed and used as a replacement for single-use plastic bags, there would be no additional material added to the waste stream, and it would solve other pollution issues at the same time. Certified compostable bags double as compostable can-liners (reducing the need for an additional can-liner product), and when used to collect organic waste, they aid in diverting massive amounts of organic waste from landfills, one of the biggest greenhouse gas contributors. This means turning waste into a resource. A typical certified compostable shopping bag, after being used to carry home goods from the store, can then be used a second time to collect about 22lbs/10kgs of organic waste per bag for compost. If 15 billion plastic bags (Canadians’ average yearly usage according to a news release published by the government of Canada in December 2021) are replaced with certified compostable alternatives and are then used for their second purpose of organic waste collection, this could lead to 136.7 million metric tonnes of organic waste being diverted from landfills every year. This looks a heck of a lot more appealing than 3.2 million tonnes of waste per year added to landfills and the environment thanks to the proposed ban.

In all fairness, we want to see positive change happen; we applaud the Federal Government of Canada for recognizing there is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, we do NOT want to have regrets. We do NOT want to create a bigger problem than we already have. We do NOT want to see the valuable time which translates to budget wasted on the wrong path just to have to backtrack and move in a different direction. The goal needs to be one that truly reduces the plastic waste harming our environment and acts as a positive example of how to move forward for other countries as well. 

Certified compostable bags, with the supporting infrastructure that is already being established by our ever-growing composting culture… are the best alternatives we should consider to replace single-use plastic bags. It’s the only solution that will not leave us regretting our choices in life, not to mention saving us the nasty sting of Mother Nature’s backhand if we do make the wrong choice. 

Join us, and tell the government that you don’t want to waste your time or taxpayers’ money by creating a poorly planned ban that is doomed to fail. Add your name to the list of Canadians asking the government to make this ban one that will create positive and lasting change for both our environment and future generations of Canadians too! Sign up here.

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