In the Bag
On April 22, 2009, the Canadian retail chain Loblaws is going to implement a five-cent-per-bag fee for shoppers wanting plastic bags when they buy groceries.
Currently, Ontarians use approximately 2.5 billion plastic grocery bags a year; that’s an average of four bags per person, per week. Now, one might argue that plastic grocery bags are reusable and, once they become worn to the point where they can’t be reused any longer, they are recyclable in many municipalities. For instance, I know my Blue Box program accepts plastic bags. While this may all be true, the recycling process still consumes resources that could be avoided if the majority of people started using reusable bags and bins for their shopping.
If your municipality doesn’t recycle plastic bags, then the other alternative for your spent plastic bags is landfill. Estimates commonly state that a polyethylene plastic bag takes anywhere from 500 to 1000 years to decompose in landfill. In addition, one has to wonder whether the current practice of lining landfill sites with plastic or clay, in order to prevent leaching of waste contaminants into ground water sources, allows the contents to do much decomposing. I don’t know the answer; I just often wonder what assumptions the archaeologists of the distant future will make about our society if they happen to dig down into our spent landfill sites.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I support Loblaws’ move to charge for plastic bags. I am a little skeptical of how great an impact charging five cents per bag will make on the shopping habits of some people. After all, if your weekly groceries fill an average of 10 bags, that’s only an extra 50 cents a week, or around two dollars a month. But for others, the very act of having to pay even a nominal amount for what was once free will motivate them to start bringing their own bags when they grocery shop. It worked on me several years ago when I switched to a grocery store that charges for plastic bags. I can attest to the fact that once you get into the habit of bringing your own cloth bags, it mostly becomes second nature. Yes, sometimes I do forget my reusable bags when I’m spontaneously running in to the store for a few things. On those rare occasions I try to do without a bag (having a giant purse helps!), buy another reusable bag, or (sigh) plunk down my nickel for a plastic bag. Overall, my plastic bag consumption is way down from the four bags per week statistic I quoted earlier.
What I really want to believe is that this five cent charge is just the first, tiny baby step towards phasing out plastic bags altogether. In August 2007 Loblaws opened their first completely bagless store in Milton, Ontario. It has since opened five additional bagless stores. You know what? I’ll bet the people who shop at these stores only forget their bags once.
In the end, phasing out the use of plastic bags isn’t going to stop the polar ice caps from melting. It’s simply one small change that we consumers can easily make, the impact of which will be determined down the line. When added to the other small things that are relatively painless to implement—backyard composting, hanging our clothes to dry, walking more often, packing litterless lunches, weaning our lawns off their chemical addictions—I trust, I fervently hope, that it will all add up to some kind of meaningful environmental impact.
At the very least, many years down the road when my grandchildren ask me what I did to slow climate change, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say that I took some steps, that I tried to make an impact, however small. Furthermore, I want the archaeologists of the future to see that there was more to our society that just consumption, waste and a feeling of helpless inertia.
This is an original Canada Moms Blog post.