Will Banning Single Use Plastic Work? It Depends.


Canada Moves to Ban Single Use Plastic

This week Canada announced its rolling out a strategy to eliminate single use plastic and drive change in how recycling and waste reduction is managed in our country. The plan is to designate plastic waste as a toxic substance under Canada’s Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) so it can be regulated. We applaud the effort as an early step in tackling the issue. 

Plastic Bag in Grocery Store

Plastic Ban – Who Else Has Banned Single Use Plastic? 

The effort to stem the tide of plastic waste is gaining momentum worldwide. Earlier this year the EU laid out a directive to ban 10 single-use items, including plastic cutlery, plates and styrofoam food and drink containers. Globally, 32 countries have banned at least some single-use plastics, with many more regions and cities around the world considering bans of their own on things like grocery bags and straws. 

What is the Problem with Single Use Plastic? 

The UN estimates that between one and five trillion bags are produced worldwide or two million bags per minute. Plastic isn’t biodegradable; it ends up in landfillswaterways and the ocean. Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose and releases toxins into the soil and water in the process. 

Worldwatch Institute reports that at least 267 species of marine wildlife are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, most of which is composed of plastic. Tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles die every year from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags.  

National Geographic reports that nearly every seabird on earth is eating plastic. An Australian study found that about 90 percent of the birds examined had plastic in their stomachs. 

Plastic bags carry a large fossil fuel footprintMost plastic is made from petroleum. Throwing away billions of plastic grocery bags each year means we are drilling for oil and natural gas with all their associated impacts to make bags that might be used only once or twice. 

Bird Eating Plastic

Plastic Bag Ban – Does It Work?

University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor started researching the impact of bag bans in 2016 after California banned plastic shopping bags. Her findings? Well, it’s complicated.  

NPR summarized her research in a recent article – the short answer – bag use went down BUT garbage bag purchases went up. People who ‘re-use’ shopping bags for other uses, started to buy them. 

Before California banned plastic shopping bags statewide in late 2016, a wave of 139 California cities and counties implemented the policy themselves. Taylor and colleagues compared bag use in cities with bans with those without them. For six months, they spent weekends in grocery stores tallying the types of bags people carried out (she admits these weren’t her wildest weekends). She also analyzed these stores’ sales data.

Taylor found these bag bans did what they were supposed to: People in the cities with the bans used fewer plastic bags, which led to about 40 million fewer pounds of plastic trash per year. But people who used to reuse their shopping bags for other purposes, like picking up dog poop or lining trash bins, still needed bags. “What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned,” she says. This was particularly the case for small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect.

Rebecca Taylor 

If you really want to nerd out on the data you can reference this spreadsheet of studies on plastic bag bans in the US. 

Zero Waste – What Can We Do To Help? 

Can tote bags work? Yes, but only if you use them and use them a lot. A 2011 study by the U.K. government found you need to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once. More recently, the Danish government commissioned a study suggesting you need to use your cotton tote bags tens of thousands of times! Neither study looked at the impacts of litter and pollution – so the impacts aren’t all considered in those numbers.  

According to an Australian study, the best reusable ones are made from recycled polyester or plastics like polypropylene. Those still have to be used dozens and dozens of times to be greener than plastic grocery bags, which have the smallest carbon footprint for a single use. 

At Fairware, we’re working with our clients to transition their promotional merchandise to more eco-friendly promo products that support a zero-waste lifestyle. By shifting their give-aways towards re-usable tote bags, refillable water bottles, travel mugs (the classic zero waste give-aways) to re-usable produce bags, re-usable bulk bags, re-usable cutlery and straw sets they’re giving the gift of a more sustainable lifestyle.