The Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s (LCBO) recent decision to stop using plastic bags is one ripe with controversy. (See editorial, page 4.) According to the plastics industry, objective science has repeatedly shown that the substitution of paper bags for conventional plastic shopping bags will have a negative impact on the environment.
For example, the world’s second largest grocery retailer, Carrefour, commissioned a Life Cycle Study in 2004 by Price-Waterhouse-Cooper/ EcoBilan that compared the environmental impact of four types of bags: plastic made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), paper, biodegradable plastic (50 per cent thermoplastic starch and 50 per cent polycaprolactone compost-able plastic) and reusable plastic (flexible PE). The study was completed according to ISO standards 14041-14043, and peer reviewed by the French environmental institute, the Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME).
The study showed that recyclable plastic bags are second only to reusable plastic bags when it comes to environmental impact. In particular, the study found that the manufacture of paper bags is more energy intensive than the manufacture of plastic bags, requiring two times more nonrenewable energy than plastic shopping bags (based on current reuse rates), four times as much water, producing three times as many greenhouse gas emissions, and twice as many acid gas emissions. The same study also found that it takes 91 per cent less energy to recycle one pound of plastic than to recycle a pound of paper.
A 2007 LCA study into grocery bags, conducted by internationally recognized lifecycle practitioner, Boustead Consulting & Associates Ltd., came up with similar results. The study found that the manufacture of paper bags requires three times more nonrenewable energy than plastic shopping bags, produces twice as many greenhouse gas emissions and uses 17 times more fresh water than plastic bags.
The experience outside Canada
Even Ireland’s much-cited “successful” plastic bag tax has turned out to be somewhat less of an environmental win, according to the plastics industry. True, the country experienced a 90 per cent decrease in the number of conventional plastic bags distributed at checkout, but it also led to an overall 21 per cent increase in the amount of plastic consumed in Ireland! Why? Consumers were forced to use heavier “kitchen-catcher” plastic bags that they could purchase off the shelf tax free.
Additionally, Scotland’s lead authority on environmental issues, the Environment and Rural Development Committee (ERDC), concluded that the net environmental impact of a proposed levy or tax on plastic shopping bags was an issue of considerable dispute in a range of areas. In other words, the committee found that there were “a number of unintended consequences” that appear likely to be connected with using a levy to achieve a large reduction in the number of single-use plastic bags issued at checkouts. For this reason, the ERDC rejected the proposal.
In the Proposed Plastic Bag Levy — Extended Impact Assessment: Volume 2: Appendices, Appendices the Scottish ERDC states the following: “There is a popular misconception that paper bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags… The LCAs considered here indicate that this is not the case. The response from WRAP to the Scottish Environmental Levy Bill [WRAP 2004a] indicates that a levy that substituted current plastic bag use with free paper bags would be a step in the wrong direction.”
The United Kingdom, Italy and the European Union have all rejected calls for bag bans or taxes. And, Taiwan lifted a ban on plastic bags in 2006 in the fast food sector because it led to a massive amount of material going to landfill as people switched to paper bags.
The same findings are occurring here in North America. The Alameda County Court recently struck down a proposed plastic bag ban in the City of Oakland, California, citing the need for an environmental impact study to determine the environmental affects of such a ban.
“The court finds that substantial evidence in the record supports at least a fair argument that single-use paper bags are more damaging than single-use plastic bags,” said Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch in his ruling. The city was ordered to conduct a further environmental review before proceeding with the ban.
Over the last couple of years, over 30 organizations and jurisdictions throughout Canada have examined banning plastic bags and have rejected the idea.
Misconception about litter
Litter is another reason often cited for replacing plastic bags with paper bags or other kinds of bags. In fact, the plastics industry points out, studies of Greater Toronto Area (GTA) communities show that plastic bags consistently account for less than one per cent of urban litter. Statistics from the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, an annual nation- wide anti-litter event, confirm this. These statistics show that from 2003 to 2006, bags of all material types (paper, grocery, dry cleaning, garbage, reusable, etc.) represent between five and eight per cent of the total amount of litter collected. Estimates for plastic shopping bags alone would be much lower.
An unexplainable decision
At the time the LCBO announced its decision to phase out plastic bags, it already had a good environmental story to tell. First, the plastic bags were EcoLogo certified, which means that they contained at least 20 per cent post-consumer content. Second, the LCBO had successfully light-weighted the bags by 20 per cent over the last year or so. Third, the LCBO had already achieved a 30 per cent reduction in the number of plastic bags being handed out, putting it well on its way to attaining a voluntary 50 per cent reduction over the next five years in the use of plastic bags, as suggested by the Ontario government. Fourth, the bags were an excellent solution for doing double-duty to deliver the empty wine and liquor bottles to The Beer Store.
Additionally, the plastics industry notes that the LCBO has committed to the use of more plastic packaging in other areas of its business, such as increased use of tetra-pak cartons and plastic PET bottles. Although the LCBO has taken the time to conduct research into the continued use of plastic in one area as a way of lightening its environmental footprint, when it comes to plastic bags, it’s flying in direct contradistinction to some of the best research currently available, the industry says.
Ned Nettirc is a waste diversion expert in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Contact Ned at firstname.lastname@example.org