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We break down your plastic-bag alternatives: The greenest option may surprise you

We break down your plastic-bag alternatives: The greenest option may surprise you

By Patty Winsa Data Reporter

Monday, February 13, 2023

anada’s prohibition on the sale of single-use plastic bags doesn’t come into effect until the end of this year, but it’s already getting harder to find them when you’re shopping.

Numerous grocery chains in Ontario have been removing traditional plastic bags as an option for shoppers who don’t bring their own.

It’s part of the federal government’s ambitious zero plastic waste strategy. Canada is aiming to remove millions of tonnes of difficult-to-recycle plastic waste, as well as plastic pollution, and mandate a minimum of 50 per cent recycled content in plastic packaging.

It’s a major change to the retail landscape in this country. But there are questions about the options being used to replace the ubiquitous plastic bag — and about the impact the ban will have.

Many of the bags that grocery stores are selling appear to be fabric — they too are also made of plastic, are themselves unrecyclable and many are manufactured in China.

The cheaper ones have no recycled content.

“They use different types of plastic resins that are much stronger and have more tensile strength, and that allows the bag to be reused multiple times,” says Cal Lakhan, a York University research scientist. “But the drawback is that it requires a significant amount of resources to make that bag.

“So, unless you’re using it hundreds of times, you might not actually get a positive environmental return.”

The bags will also be more expensive, anywhere from $0.15 cents and up for a paper bag — which can also be difficult to recycle because of food contamination and paper quality — to $5 for a reusable plastic fabric bag or more for other materials.

Single-use plastic bags are just one of the items being banned in Canada. The others include single-use food service ware, stir sticks, straws and ring carriers.

The government says the regulations are meant to “prevent plastic pollution by eliminating or restricting the six categories of SUPs (single-use plastic) that pose a threat to the environment,” and to “make it easier for Canadians to enjoy the benefits of clean natural areas, and help foster the transition to a circular economy.”

There are those like Lakhan who describe it as a “feel-good policy” that won’t do much to reduce our overall plastic waste.

“Almost all the emphasis is placed on consumers and the residential sector,” says Lakhan. “But we’re a drop in the bucket of the larger problem.

“In terms of all the waste generated, 90 per cent of it comes from the industrial sector, not from the residential sector,” says Lakhan, referring to plastic waste that enters the environment through manufacturing and industrial processes.

Bans on single-use plastics, such as the one in Canada, are becoming more common around the world as jurisdictions look for ways to reduce the highly visible consumer waste that is littering shore lines. That plastic makes its way into waterways where it endangers marine life and ecosystems. It can also become brittle and breakdown into harmful microplastics, which not only contain harmful chemicals but attract others already in the environment.

In the E.U., more than two-thirds of ocean litter is comprised of the 10 most common single-use plastic items found on European beaches. The union is banning the sale of those items, including cutlery, plates, straws, stir sticks, cotton bud sticks and balloons, but not bags. On other items, it will require labelling to inform consumers about the harm done to nature if the item becomes litter. The EU is also introducing waste management and cleanup obligations for producers.

“Plastic bags and other single use plastics are the top items we find in the environment,” says Britta Baechler, associate director of ocean plastics research for Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.

“They’ve been detected in the stomachs of all kinds of marine animals around the world. So they’re extremely problematic. And again, they will break up into what we call microfilm, small flexible pieces of plastic which can be ingested by any number of living organisms.”

Since the 1950s, about 40 per cent of plastic produced every year is designed to be thrown away after one use, according to an article published in last year.

In Canada, about 90 per cent of plastic ends up in landfills.

Items like single-use plastic bags, which are made of a low-density polyethylene, are cheap to make but difficult and cost-prohibitive to recycle. And the bags, as well as other plastic film can easily be contaminated by any food it’s in contact with.

“When we talk about sustainability, it’s important to remember that there is an environmental, economic and social dimension,” says Lakhan. “And we tend to just fixate on the environment.

“The economic aspect of trying to recycle plastic film is once again thousands of dollars a ton,” he says. “And you have to ask yourself, is that money well spent given that the end product is still low grade and will still ultimately end up in landfills.”

California has tried to create a viable system to recycle plastic grocery bags.

The state banned single-use plastic bags in 2016, but allowed grocery stores to sell thicker plastic film bags, manufactured by companies in California, made of polyethylene, including 40 per cent recycled content.

Grocery stores were made responsible for creating a closed-loop system, installing bins in the front of stores to collect the bags and ensuring they are recycled. The cost is born by consumers who are charged $0.10 a bag.

The bags, along with more pristine shrink wrap from pallets of packaged food deliveries, were supposed to be collected and sent to distribution centres and processed into a plastic flake used for agricultural ground cover and drip tape for irrigation.

But the front-of-the-store collection bins were removed during COVID and haven’t been replaced.

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, says the companies reclaiming the bags have figured out that it’s cheaper not to have to separate the pallet wrap from the bins of potentially contaminated, used grocery bags.

“It’s an economic barrier. It’s a pain-in-the-ass barrier,” says Murray. “It is, you know, folks whose job is not really recycling, but minimizing cost, who are not supporting the objectives that the retailers agreed to as part of this legislation.”

The state’s attorney general is now investigating whether the reusable plastic bags are actually being recycled. Although the legislation says the bags must stand up to 125 reuses, it’s thought most are reused once — to line a garbage bin.

Murray’s organization hopes the investigation will result in the bins being returned as well as proof that the bags are being recycled.

So far, the Canadian ban on single-use plastic bags doesn’t have the same teeth.

The regulation stipulates that reusable bags can be made of plastic fabric “as long as they will not break or tear if used to carry 10 kg over a distance of 53 m 100 times.”

“The Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations do not contain specific testing methods, nor do they require regulated parties to provide proof of testing for single-use plastic items placed on the Canadian market,” said Environment Canada in an email. “Retailers are encouraged to discuss the requirements of the Regulations with their suppliers.”

The Canadian regulations also say the bags must stand up to a “single domestic wash.” Reusable bags should be wiped down or washed often, a recommendation because meat and dairy can contaminate the bags.

But that recommendation also has the potential to add more microplastics to the environment, as washing is one of the major ways that fibres from plastic materials are released into wastewater.

“There’s a possibility that laundering reusable bags at high temperatures and agitating them and everything can release microplastics because they’re created from synthetics,” says Baechler, of Ocean Conservancy.

Guidelines that stipulate fewer washes between use, washing on cold temperatures, on a gentle setting, with mild detergent, could help reduce the release of microplastics, says Baechler.

The good news is that some grocery chains are also pursuing solutions to reduce plastic waste.

Walmart Canada eliminated single-use plastic shopping bags in April of last year and says that move has prevented more than 527 million single-use plastic shopping bags from entering circulation.

The chain is trying to create a circular economy for its reusable bags, running a pilot at its Guelph store where it has installed a “GOATOTE” kiosk. Customers can check out clean reusable bags for a fee, and return them within a month, after which they are cleaned, sanitized and put back into circulation in the kiosk.

Walmart says it is also reviewing opportunities to take back bags used for home delivery.

And Sobeys, which held a contest last year in Atlantic Canada to find a sustainable alternative to plastic wrap on its in-store meat and seafood packaging, is working with the winner of that contest to develop a potential fibre replacement.

More of those “upstream” innovations are needed to reduce our reliance on plastic, says Baechler.

“We drastically need to reduce the amount of single use plastics and packaging that we produce. We need to create better. We need to find alternatives. We need more sustainable materials, and we need different delivery methods like refillable or reusable bags,” as well as recycle.

“And the problem with plastic bags is they are not recyclable,” says Baechler. “They gum up the recycling equipment. So they’re hugely problematic. They’re not circular and banning these items makes people change behaviour. And that’s ultimately a piece of the solution puzzle.”

Originally posted on Toronto Star