It’s as perennial in springtime as skunk cabbage: the idea of implementing a “plastax” to discourage the use of plastic bags has popped up again, this time with the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ environment committee, only to be shot down again by the same committee.
Instead, they’ve suggested that the UBCM encourage the plastics industry to increase the “recyclability” of plastic bags and work with local governments on “enhancing plastic bag reuse, reduction and recycling.” That’s like asking cigarette manufacturers to get smokers to smoke less, and fobbing the failed attempt off onto government. As for municipalities doing “the right thing” by collecting plastic bags for recycling, there are only 20 in B.C. doing so.
Last spring it was the GVRD that shot down the idea of a plastax. At this rate, the provincial then federal governments will next leap on the plastic bandwagon by refusing to discourage the things.
Of course, the plastic bag industry, which runs the site myplasticbags.ca, will continue to advocate for plastic. As for the argument that plastic bags are good because we re-use them, it’s ridiculous. If they weren’t there, we’d do what? Dump our garbage right from the little can into the bigger one and rinse it when needed instead of sealing our garbage in an airtight bag so it can’t decompose? Wrap our wet swimsuits in towels? Use a trowel or a biodegradable bag for dog doo like we should?
No, we use them because they’re there, by the hundreds. And we’re lazy sods riddled with guilt over our excesses, so we use them for something, anything. Future generations will label us as bad bag junkies who couldn’t shake the habit, until someone or something made us.
Leaf Rapids, Manitoba (population: 539) is the first community in North America to ban single-use plastic bags; Rossland, B.C. is considering a voluntary ban; San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to dump traditional plastic bags. The new bylaw is anticipated to save 100 million plastic bags a year, or 1.5 million litres of oil and 4.2 million kg of carbon dioxide. Then there’s Ireland that started it all with its 15-cent tax on each plastic bag that’s raised millions of euros and cut bag use by 90 per cent.
Closer to home, we can find a few bright lights. Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op went “bio” with its bags two years ago. Chris Higgins, MEC’s building specialist, was charged with researching “solutions” for plastic bags and came up with the Norwegian-made BioBag (he’s a wealth of information and welcomes your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org).
“Essentially we were using a traditional polyethylene bag, like most retailers, because it’s one of the lower cost options. It’s a bag that feels like a quality, heavy, slippery plastic as opposed to a high-density polyethylene, which may be associated with a discount store — it’s a very crinkly bag. The perception is that’s a cheap option, partly because it is less expensive, but also because of the way it feels,” says Higgins.
Therein lies a cue to our love affair with plastic bags. We like how they feel — the heavier and silkier (read, sensual) the better.
According to Chris, the traditional virgin plastic bag is made from 100 per cent crude oil. Some plastic bags, like those used by Whole Foods in West Vancouver, are blended from post-consumer recycled plastic and virgin plastic — so they at least create a market for recycled plastic. No, recycled plastic bags don’t end up as fleece. In fact, other than more plastic bags, they don’t get used for much of anything, except in Third World countries where people crochet them.
Recycled bags like Whole Foods’ are grey as a result of mixing all the bag colours, ergo dark dyes added to make black recycled garbage bags. But recycled or not, plastic bags can take up to 100, some say even 1,000, years to break down — pretty radical for something used for only 10 minutes.
Essentially, plastic bags are not biodegradable, which means breaking down into unrecognizable elements, or biomass, within a certain time. They only degrade, which means they break down into teeny bits of plastic. (“Biodegradable” is often mis-used: go to www.worldwise.com/biodegradable.html for an explanation.)
Then there are paper bags, which biodegrade under the right conditions and can be recycled, but, considering factors like logging trucks and pulp mills, create an energy footprint larger than plastic bags in their production. Then there’s a degradable chemical additive that can be added to plastic bags to make them degrade faster, but that leaves behind heavy metals like lead, and doesn’t meet ASTM standards for biodegradability or compostability — again, not a good choice.
Then there are BioBags, the MEC choice for one-use bags and the only 100 per cent biodegradable and compostable bag around (look for hallmarks on your bags to see how they rate). Manufactured in Norway from GM-free corn starch, vegetable oils and compostable polyesters, BioBags have the nice heft and feel consumers love. Even Carney’s Waste Systems is using them.
BioBags cost about four times more than polyethylene bags. Some people also question their energy footprint, especially the use of corn, given its dependence on petroleum-based products like fertilizer. But Chris figures they’re worth it. With their unique look and feel, BioBags make an ethical statement, along with MEC’s “no bag” program — they donate five cents to an environmental cause every time you choose no bag. Lululemon similarly donates 50 cents every time people choose no bag.
And that really is the best bottom line in the bag world. Neal Lantela is the manager at Fiber Options Whistler, which used to use BioBags and is now considering offering only branded, reusable organic cotton or hemp bags at a modest cost.
“We would give people an option of buying a tote bag or not taking a bag, because ultimately when it comes down to it, it’s really better not to use a bag at all,” he says. “If we can find something to replace plastic bags entirely, that would be ideal.” Especially when people are just walking 100 feet to their hotel.
In the grocery department, Nesters Market assistant store manager Ian Fairweather says about 30 per cent of customers now bring in their own bags, whether they’re souvenir diving bags from Mexico or one of Nesters’ own cotton bags that can be had for $2.50. IGA Marketplace, The Grocery Store and Creekside Market also offer reusable, durable bags at super-reasonable prices that are good for all kinds of extras.
“I use our black, reusable bags all the time,” says Barry Rosstorm, Creekside Market general manager, “even for covering the tops of my golf clubs, especially when I travel. It’s good advertising.”
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who
discovered that South Africa has dubbed plastic bags the “national flower”
because so many dot the countryside.