Battle of the bag

Is the plastic bag an environmental bogeyman or not?
Peter Shawn Taylor

Battle of the bagIt could be worse. Cathy Cirko could be the official spokesperson for the Somali Brotherhood of Pirates, or the Mosquito Breeders Association. As it is, Cirko is vice-president of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association and the country’s chief advocate of plastic shopping bags.

The once-ubiquitous plastic bag has quickly become an environmental bogeyman in Canada. Earlier this month, citing concerns over litter and landfill, Toronto launched the country’s first municipal bylaw requiring all stores to charge a five cents per bag fee to discourage their use. Several retail chains—including Home Depot and Canada’s largest grocer, Loblaw Co. Ltd.—have taken the fee nationwide. Emboldened by the speed with which this policy has moved, environmental groups are now talking of the day when plastic bags will seem as repellant as in-flight smoking sections. “It’s taking off everywhere as people realize this is the next right thing to do,” says Steven Price, the senior conservation director of the World Wildlife Fund.

Tasked with the unenviable job of defending plastic bags in the face of this momentum, Cirko has fought back with a host of independent scientific studies and government data that appear to undercut the substantive arguments made against the bags. “Even if we assume every plastic bag went straight to the dump, it would only represent 0.2 per cent of the 25 million tonnes we send to landfills annually,” she says, citing federal and provincial documentation. And she points to a 2007 Decima poll that found more than eight out of 10 Canadians reused their shopping bags for household garbage or pet waste.

She also notes a 2006 City of Toronto street litter audit that examined 4,300 individual pieces of garbage at 300 sites citywide. Of this total urban detritus, just six were plastic retail shopping bags. That’s 0.15 per cent of total litter.

“Bags are not a litter issue and they are not a landfill issue,” she says. “And we have the numbers to show that. Unfortunately, this has become an emotional issue rather than a debate based on facts. It is very frustrating.” She argues municipal efforts would be better directed towards recycling plastic rather than discouraging its use.

Glenn de Baeremaeker, a Toronto councillor, is the architect of his city’s bag bylaw. The ardent environmentalist disputes the notion that bags are a minor issue. “Nothing is insignificant,” he says. “We are drowning in a sea of garbage. So we are coming after plastic bags and we are coming after everything else that’s bigger as well.” From disposable coffee cup lids to consumer electronics, it is all in his sights. De Baeremaeker argues that beyond the practical benefits of reducing landfill usage, if only by a tiny amount, his campaign is emblematic of a broader issue. “The plastic bag is a symbol of our wasteful and gluttonous lifestyle. It all has to change.”

Still, it’s hard to escape the sense that the plastic bag crusade is largely a political statement. The bags, for instance, are frequently held up as the biggest blight on the world’s oceans. But this month, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released a major report on marine waste which cited garbage cleanups along the Mediterranean Sea showing plastic bags accounted for just 8.5 per cent of total marine litter. Cigarettes and cigars were 37 per cent, plastic bottles, 10 per cent. With respect to entanglement of marine life, a 2007 study identified fishing nets, lines and ropes as being responsible for over 70 per cent of such incidents. Plastic bags, including garbage and shopping bags, caused less than 10 per cent. The report recommended that bag use be “discouraged” in coastal areas. Instead, the executive director of the UNEP, Achim Steiner, issued a press release calling for a sweeping worldwide ban on “pointless” plastic bags. Based on the evidence, a ban on fishing line, plastic bottles or cigarettes would make more sense.
Then there’s the possibility that, regardless of the symbolism, throwaway plastic bags might simply be better than the alternatives. Cirko also commissioned two independent labs to examine the health implications of replacing plastic shopping bags with reusable woven “green” bags. Bags randomly obtained from shoppers were tested for bacteria, yeast, mould and E. coli. The results were then interpreted by Dr. Richard Summerbell, the former chief of medical mycology for Ontario.

The tests found surprisingly high levels of bacteria in two-thirds of the reusable bags. One-third had levels above those set for safe drinking water. The fact that some people used the bags to carry items other than food­—gym clothes or beer empties—greatly increased the risk.

“This study provides strong evidence that reusable bags could pose a significant risk to the safety of the food supply if used to transport food from store to home,” Dr. Summerbell concluded. He recommended that all meat be double-wrapped before being placed in reusable bags and that the bags themselves be washed and discarded regularly. None of the throwaway bags were found to be contaminated in any way.