Solid Waste & Recycling


Diversion: A New Image for Plastic Bags

Thanks to Canadian municipalities and innovative grocery retailers, the plastic shopping bag is getting a makeover. Today, many people -- and recycling companies -- recognize the value inherent in thi...

Thanks to Canadian municipalities and innovative grocery retailers, the plastic shopping bag is getting a makeover. Today, many people — and recycling companies — recognize the value inherent in this six-gram resource. As a result, those plastic shopping bags are finding their way into in-store take-back programs designed to divert the bags from landfill. From there, they are being recycled into new bags or other useful products like plastic lumber used for decking, outdoor furniture and even park benches. The North American plastic lumber market alone is estimated to be worth $2 billion. And it is experiencing double digit growth each year.

This new trend is the result of municipalities and retailers working together. The municipalities help promote the programs to residents and, in some cases, have even provided retailers with collection bins. The benefit to them is the increased diversion of waste from landfill. For the retailer, the benefit is another revenue stream, as well as the ability to satisfy the demands of the consumer; research shows consumers want to recycle the bags. Plus, retailers can help feed a growing market demand for clean polyethylene.

The City of London recently announced new in-store partnerships with A&P, and the City of Ottawa has joined with Loeb. Many other municipalities are following suit and are initiating discussions with local retailers in their community.

“We are pleased to be supporting businesses in our community that are taking an active role developing programs that divert waste from the city’s landfills and raise awareness of environmental issues,” says Jay Stanford, Division Manager, Environmental Programs & Customer Relations, City of London. Stanford suggests that the new partnership program can increase the annual amount of bags recycled in the city by as much as 30 per cent within the first year.

“Making a difference in the environment requires a collaborative effort in our city,” says former City of Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli. “Loeb’s leadership in this pilot waste-diversion project exemplifies the City’s co-operative commitment to partner with business and work with residents to make solutions as one community…” The City of Ottawa is providing Loeb with recycling bins, in-store promotional materials and is listing the stores in its “Take-it-Back” directory and website.

Some retailers, such as Overwaite out west or Sobey’s in Atlantic Canada, have been recycling plastic bags for a number of years.

Safeway has been offering its in-store plastic bag recycling program to its customers since the early 1990s. And the western-based retail chain has yet to see any decline in interest on the part of consumers.

But there’s no drop in demand for polyethylene. It really is no surprise that many major retailers have come onboard with their own in-store plastic bag recycling programs. The growing list includes many of the top names in the industry, including London Drugs, Dominion, Thrifty, Wal-Mart and Save-On Foods, to name just a few.

Recycling top of mind

According to information gleaned from a Decima Research study, Canadian consumers want to recycle their plastic bags. A whopping 81 per cent of them said that they would participate in retail in-store programs for recycling plastic shopping bags if such facilities were made available. The highest percentage (85 per cent) came from Quebec. Ontario was the lowest at 78 per cent (still a high number).

The lower percentage in Ontario could be accounted for by the large number of municipalities within the province that offer curbside collection for plastic bags. Within Canada, 14 million people (44 per cent of the country’s population) currently have access to plastic bag recycling through curbside, in-store or depot programs.

The Decima study also showed that Canadians are reusing their plastic bags. In fact, 92 per cent reported reusing them. Typical uses include lunch bags, carrying garbage or recyclables to the curb and picking up after pets.

Front and centre

Despite the fact that plastic bags are being reused by an impressive percentage of the population, the plastic shopping bag still gets a bad wrap when it comes to litter. Although lightweight, the bags are highly visible and, as such, tend to garner much of the attention. In realty, waste audits undertaken at several Canadian municipalities consistently show that plastic shopping bags represent less than one per cent of litter by unit count.

According to statistics from the International Coastal Cleanup, the total category of “bags” accounted for only 5.4 per cent of the total amount of litter cleaned up from Canada’s shorelines and waterways in 2005. This category includes bags of all material types. Cigarettes, the number one litter item for Canada, comprised over one quarter of the total number of debris items. It was followed by food wrappers.

Tax not the solution

Unlike Canada’s innovative solution to recycle plastic shopping bags and use of them as a resource, several countries have played with the idea of imposing a tax on the bags. Ireland is perhaps the most well known of these. What is lesser known is that the tax was a complete failure in terms of helping to divert materials from landfill. When the tax was introduced in 2002, consumers responded by switching to heavier gauge plastic bags (like kitchen catchers). In the end, there may have been a 90 per cent reduction in the number of bags handed out at the check out, but sales of the heavier bags increased by 400 per cent and, perhaps most important, the use of plastic within Ireland increased by 10 per cent.

Other countries have learned from Ireland’s circumstances. Scotland’s all-party Environment and Rural Development Committee spent two years listening to expert opinion on the Irish bag tax before deciding against imposing a Scottish bag tax. Their conclusion? The Irish tax had a number of negative unintended consequences that hurt consumers, retailers and the environment. The United Kingdom is another country that researched the idea only to decide against a tax.

And, it’s interesting to note that Ontarians are overwhelmingly opposed to a tax on plastic bags. According to a Decima Research poll, a clear majority — 75 per cent — said they would not support such a move.

New outlook for plastic bags

With new partnerships being formed between municipalities and retailers, the plastic bag is getting a second chance. Canadian consumers are helping to ensure that this second chance is one that will involve either reuse or recycling. It takes only 2,250 plastic shopping bags to make one 2 x 6 inch composite board that’s 16 feet long. But it requires efforts on the part of all of us to make it happen.

Cathy Cirko is the Director General of EPIC, a Standing Committee of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. Contact Cathy at or read more about plastic bag recycling at

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