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Retailers, whether running small businesses or large corporations, have to take into account the costs, both monetary and accrued through process inefficiencies, of the alternative that they are using to replace plastic. For example, a small business in Vancouver had to switch from plastic to paper bags as a result of the provincial ban. In doing so, the owner found that she couldn’t keep nearly as many bags in her store due to the bulkiness of the paper and couldn’t expand her storage space to accommodate the change. This problem would be replicated in the case of thick reusable options as well, while certified compostable bags take up the same amount of space as traditional plastic. 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 budgets and business practices to accommodate the use of unsuitable alternatives.
It is fairly well-known that reusable bags are the most expensive bag option, both for retailers and for consumers. What this extra cost leads to on the retailers’ side is companies inevitably opting for the least expensive reusable bag that they can find. These are the thinner non-woven polypropylene bags initially offered by companies like Sobeys and Walmart. These bags are inexpensive because they are thin and will not last very long; many of them are not even able to be machine washed because they would fall apart. This is known by the retailer, such as Sobeys, as it states right on the bag “Hand wash in cold water”. Even with legislation being passed saying that reusable bags must be machine washable, it is undeniable that retailers and customers alike will tend to opt for the cheapest available option, which is still made of plastics and will ultimately not last as long as governments are intending. This leads to the bags tearing and becoming extra plastic waste in landfills and the environment, not really preventing bag litter at all.
Another issue that arises with the high price of reusable bags is that it increases disparity between high and low income individuals. The high cost of bags on top of continually rising costs of groceries and other essentials creates an even greater strain on those who may be struggling financially. Not only this, but individuals who would ordinarily have re-used their plastic bags for garbage collection are now forced to purchase trash bags separately, on top of the reusable bags they have to purchase at checkout.
According to a 2019 article in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, “the elimination of 40 million pounds of plastic carryout bags is offset by a 12 million pound increase in trash bag purchases—with small, medium, and tall trash bag sales increasing by 120%, 64%, and 6%, respectively. The results further reveal 12–22% of plastic carryout bags were reused as trash bags pre-regulation and show bag bans shift consumers towards fewer but heavier bags”. What this shows is more evidence as to what the federal government is referring to when they say, regarding the single-use plastic (SUP) ban, “The proposed Regulations would prevent approximately 1.6 million tonnes of plastics from entering the waste stream over the analytical period, but would also add about 3.2 million tonnes of other materials to the waste stream from the use of substitutes, due to their increased unit weights relative to SUPs”.
The easiest way to make the ban more palatable for the average individual would be to offer a replacement that requires minimal changes to cost, policy, and process. The best option for this is certified compostable bags. In form and function, they are virtually identical to single-use plastic bags but without the negative environmental impact. They are also far less expensive than reusable bags (approximately $0.10-0.15 per bag for retailers compared to $0.50+ for reusables). The main difference between using certified compostable bags and plastic bags is that the end user would use the compostable bag again for organics collection before disposing of it in the compost bin rather than the garbage. This is essentially the only behavioural shift that would have to occur if certified compostable bags were provided as the replacement for single-use plastic bags. And since the culture of composting is already becoming engrained in Canadians’ lives, this is a relatively small shift to ask of citizens. The right choice has never been clearer. Let’s go compostable!
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