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Does banning plastic bags solve the plastics problem?

James Morgan
The plastic bag avalance from the author's kitchen cupboard.

People have been talking about plastic bags a lot lately. The single-use plastic bag, ubiquitous at most supermarkets, is the favorite culprit in the campaign against plastic pollution. Banning really should not be that difficult, but it also depends on the willingness of packaging companies, retailers and consumers to adapt.

It is now spring - and the plastic bag reveals itself like an ugly animal from hibernation. They appear from melted snowbanks. They blow with the wind and get stuck in tree branches.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he is going to ban them from the state, while a poll conducted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found 82 percent of Canadians want the federal government to do more about plastic pollution. Federal Minister of the Environment Catherine McKenna will announce a plastic pollution strategy in June.

Bans can also be reversed by the fickle forces of political ideology. A few years ago, the City of Toronto banned plastic bags. That ban was reversed by the late Rob Ford when he was mayor. Now his brother Doug is Premier of Ontario.

In Ontario and Quebec, every supermarket chain charges five cents per plastic bag. Even discount department stores like Walmart and Ottawa-based Giant Tiger have started.

How willing though are consumers to really part with their plastic bags?

Re-useable shopping bags are easily available for a small fee or frequently given out as promotional material by various businesses and organizations. However, having plastic bags around the house can be useful. They are great for lining waste baskets or for carrying extra things for travel or work, but there are alternatives to that as well.

And what happened to paper bags? When I lived in Gatineau, QC, supermarkets there were offering them instead of plastic. In Grenville and the nearby towns of Hawkesbury and Lachute, I have not seen a paper bag since I began doing my shopping there. Some of these stores are even part of the same chain, yet are not offering paper bags at all locations.

There’s also the argument that plastic bags are recyclable, either by returning them to a bin at the store or putting them in the municipal recycling bin for pickup. However, the recycling market for plastic can vary, which means recycling programs can sometimes stop accepting materials.

That happened recently in southwestern Ontario, when the Bluewater Recycling Association, which operates the recycling service for towns in Huron and Perth Counties, stopped accepting certain materials because the market has gone down for them. A lot of recyclable material was being shipped to China, and that country has closed off imports of recyclable materials from North America, creating an oversupply of stock with no market.

The packaging industry must take responsibility, too. With all the anti-plastic rhetoric, it seems like more things are packaged in plastic than ever.

Two years ago, most orange juice sold in Canadian supermarkets was in paper cartons. Now, it Is in clear plastic jugs. Other juices were once in glass bottles or tin cans, but now everything is plastic.

If governments are going to ban plastic bags or supermarket chains are going to charge customers for them, will food processing companies go back to using paper, glass or metal for packaging?

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