On a recent trip to Calgary, Canada, I noticed that I was repeatedly being asked the same question every time I went shopping and it wasn’t “paper or plastic.” I was being asked, “Do you need a bag with that?” I wondered … are Canadian cashiers better environmental stewards? And then I noticed on my receipts that for every “yes” answer, I was being charged five cents. It was enough to motivate a change in behavior: I began answering that question with a polite “no.”
Calgary is one of several cities in Canada that has implemented a levy on plastic bags, while several cities in Canada are taking the plastic bag levy one step further: elected officials in Toronto just voted to repeal the five-cent levy and instead ban all plastic bags, beginning in January.
Canada wasn’t the first to impose a levy or ban plastic bags. In 1994, Denmark was cited as being the first country to introduce a bag tax, followed by Ireland in 2001 and, later, Germany. They are currently banned in South Africa, Italy and China. In 2007, San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban bags, soon followed by Seattle and Los Angeles. There are proposals across the U.S. calling for fees or outright bans.
Plastic bags continue to be a hot debate – Tanya Gold recently published a piece at The Guardian which describes the “plastic bag conspiracy” as a “deadly distraction – yet, there does seem to be increasing evidence that it reduces bag use and plastic consumption. In Quebec, retailers have been required to charge per plastic bag used and provide customers with free, recyclable alternatives such as boxes or papers bags. Since this mandate, a major Quebec grocery store reported that it had a 70% reduction in plastic bag usage.
There is, of course, a counter-argument, though it typically doesn’t tread much water, and that is the view that plastic bags are actually more environmentally sound than paper from a standpoint of energy consumption. It was recently reported that plastic bags use 40% less energy during production than the manufacturing of paper bags. Yet, the fact remains that the majority of plastic bags are less biodegradable than their paper counterparts.
It isn’t just cities that are thinking about plastic bags – last week, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced that it will remove all plastic shopping bags within the next year. They will be the largest theme park operator to make this pledge. SeaWorld has said that they believe it will keep nearly 4 million plastic bags from entering the environment, and potentially hurting marine life. The company has noted that wildlife such as endangered sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods.
The London Olympics notably made history this year as the first Games – since plastic bags have been on the market since the 1960s – not to use any “single use” bags, providing only reusable bags to shoppers.
What do you think – are plastic bags a distraction from the larger environmental issues? Which is preferred, a tax or an outright ban? Let me know here and at @Measure4What.