Sunday, May 13, 2007

The lowly Plastic Shopping Bag

The lowly plastic bag has come under fire in the province of Ontario. The Ontario government recently has come up with options of phasing out the plastic shopping bags. Ideas that have been brought up include:

1. Ban bags outright.

2. Provide discounts or incentives for people that either re-use current plastic bags or use cloth bags.

3. Force all customers to bring their own methods of taking things home from stores.

While all three of these options have merits, the Ontario government refuses to choose the first option in an attempt to remove the plastic bags outright. But the Ontario government does want to reduce the use of plastic shopping bags in half by 2012 according to a Toronto Star article , so a combination of the last two options are being looked at.

Lets keep in mind that, according to the Ontario government, one plastic bag takes about one thousand years to breakdown. So that shopping bag you get from the local grocery store to bring home your groceries will be troubling to your great grandchildren and beyond. As new homes and infrastructure are built, future generations will be wondering what our generation was thinking when creating these things. So the real question should be how to eliminate the lowly plastic bag all together. But banning bags is probably not the best option considering how much we have come to rely on plastic bags from everything from shopping to garbage purposes.

The Ontario government is quite correct, we cannot just quit using plastic bags all at once. This is because we use plastic bags for all sorts of things including picking up our dog's "business," bringing groceries and other purchases home from the store, and taking lunch to work. So with this in mind how do we start to wean ourselves off using the bags?

The first place is the grocery store. Grocery stores should be providing incentives for customers who either reduce the use of plastic bags or do not use plastic bags all together. These could include a two cent a bag off your grocery bill for every bag you don't use. This particular incentive was used at the Loblaws I used to shop at Rideau & Nelson Streets in Ottawa. I used to take my backpack and a pair of shopping bags with me every time I went grocery shopping. I saved on average six cents per trip by using this method. Sure on one visit it doesn't add up to much. But over a year with one grocery store visit per time this would save $3.12. Perhaps if the incentive was a little higher in monetary value it might work a little better.

Other grocery stores apparently offer free air miles and similar incentives. An incentive package needs to be invented at grocery stores that provide free bags.

No Frills grocery stores do not provide grocery bags for free. Instead customers are forced to spend five cents per bag if they wish them. No Frills also offers free cardboard boxes whenever they are available. These cardboard boxes were previously used to bring in the food products in the store (e.g. boxes of cracker packages, cardboard trays to bring in fruit, etc.). So basically No Frills is trying to reduce the use of plastic bags by reusing cardboard boxes and hoping their customers will eventually recycle them via their own blue boxes. No Frills also used to sell laundry baskets that people could easily stack and unstack for shopping purposes. My mother uses this method and finds three of these black laundry baskets fit into the average No Frills shopping cart quite easily. No Frills, it seems, is at the head of reducing the use plastic bags and perhaps other stores should pay attention to them.

Plastic garbage bags provide another problem. People use the plastic bags to throw out stinky and wet items including "doggy do." So how to do we combat this particularly nasty problem. There needs to be a biodegradable bag that when used will hold the messy refuse, but will break down over five or ten years in a landfill or, even better, be totally compostable.

By 2012 will Ontarioans be using aproximately fifty percent less plastic bags? It will depend on the how well the public buy into it. But the Ontario government isn't exactly helping the matter either. Earlier in 2007 the Ontario government at their LCBO stores launched a deposit return system for all wine bottles sold in Ontario. The major problem with the admirable program of returning glass bottles for recylcing purposes was adding the plastic bag component. The "Bag it Back" program encouraging Ontarians to return their liquor bottles now seems a little regressive. On one side the government is encouraging people to return their liquor bottles while on the other hand the government is producing extra thick plastic bags for this program. Couldn't the government provide a canvas bag instead of a heavy duty plastic bag? With the "Bag it Back" program in mind, how can the government encourage the grocery and other industries to reduce the production of plastic gabs when the government itself is only increasing the use of plastic bags at their own grocery stores? Apparently there was very little thought towards the optics of producing even more plastic bags by the current Ontario Liberal government.

Reducing and reusing the current amount of plastic bags around the world is a noble cause. However, governments must lead by example and not be hypocritical in leading this environmental challenge. The public must also be provided incentives as well to join in on this environmental challenge. Incentives might include financial or points towards future purchases or trips would be in order. Only once the public, industry and government has come together can the environmental challenge of the plastic bag can be overcome.

1 comment:

  1. Good detailed post! You forgot to mention that some plastic bags are not made from plastic but corn or other such products and are biodegradable. They have all the advantages of plastic, and none of the disadvantages.

    I find half the time I forget to take the canvas bag to the store, and the other half I simply cannot schlep it all over town just to put a couple of items in it at the end of the day. Biodegradable bags fix that problem nicely.


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