I originally published this article in 2010. It’s sad to note that very little has changed since then, except that the policy of selling store-branded plastic bags to shoppers at the cash register has become ubiquitous among Canadian chain retailers. Not one of the cents we pay retailers for those bags is ear-marked for anything other than their own corporate profit.
In 2010, Shoppers Drug Mart Canada in British Columbia implemented a pay-per-bag policy, at a cost of five cents for each plastic bag used at checkout. Like most retailers, Shoppers also sells reusable branded bags and, like most retailers, charges between $2 and $10 per bag. It’s a trend which, in theory, sounds laudable. In theory, consumers will be reluctant to fork over cash for new bags and thus, in theory, they will consume fewer new bags.
Retailers are relying on consumer guilt to justify this cash-grab. We are meant to feel guilty – or at least we’re meant to know that we should feel guilty – for contributing to environmental clutter, so we will happily hand over those extra coins to ease our conscience. Keep in mind, these nickels and dimes we pay are not an ‘environmental levy.’ In fact, not one cent paid for plastic shopping bags is spent on cleaning the environment or recycling bags. The only thing retailers are doing is selling us more of their branded products for their own profit.
We’re also being encouraged to assuage our enviro-guilt by buying into their reusable bags scam. I say scam because, well, take a closer look at those bags. Made of non-woven polypropylene, a plastic polymer which, like all plastic, is a petroleum-based product. It turns out that producing polypropylene is actually more harmful to the environment than producing those regular plastic bags they’re intended to replace as an eco-friendly option. According to prlog.org, it takes about twenty-eight times more energy to produce a sack made with NWPP than it does to make a standard plastic shopping bag. NWPP bags are also prone to puncture, which means they get tossed quickly and they can’t be recycled, so they end up in landfills where they will “languish for hundreds of years.”
FOOD SAFETY CAUTION
A joint food safety report issued by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that reusable NWPP bags can serve as a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria, posing a serious health risk to consumers. “Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half the bags sampled,” says Charles Gerba, Ph.D. University of Arizona environmental microbiology professor, and study co-author. So, if you’re concerned about bacteria, you’ll want to launder those bags, right? If you’ve ever been brave enough to try, you already know that they tend to disintegrate in the washer. If they make it through, don’t you dare put them into the dryer – they melt, and they can also start fires!
Many people think that reusable means more than just that you can shlep it around until it falls apart. It does not. All it means is that a thing can be reused. It doesn’t mean it can be recycled. It doesn’t mean it’s made from eco-friendly fabric, nor that it is biodegradable.
Concern or greed?
But how much are these business practices based on actual concern for our ecosystem and how much on sheer greed? How much is simply corporations seizing another opportunity to cash in on consumers’ very real concern? Ask any millionaire who started out with a paper route , those nickels and dimes add up. Imagine how much one retailer like Shoppers has banked just from plastic bag sales since 2010 in Canada. While you’re doing that math, hop on over to Loblaws website and click on their ‘Green’ page and have a little chuckle. FYI, Loblaws owns Shoppers.
If retailers are serious about the environment, why sell oil-based bags at all? Why not sell branded reusables made from eco-friendly fabrics? And why don’t they voluntarily invest their plastic bag revenue in clean-up projects or environmental research or in any number of things to help the environment? They could provide an in-store recycling program, give refunds or rebates to customers who return the plastic bags they’ve purchased, or give incentives to those who bring their own eco-bags.
Next time you’re in a store that charges customers for plastic bags at checkout, watch the customers in line. It’s astonishing how casually Canadian consumers pay the extra fee for plastic bags without any hesitation, without asking a single question like, for example, what are you using this money for? Take a look around – look at all the over-packaging, the sickening amount of plastic wrapped around plastic wrapped around plastic, and then you can start to guess just how serious corporate retailers in Canada are about the environment.
When I wrote this article in 2010, it had a fairly optimistic last graph in which I waxed eloquent about things like global bans etcetera. But all I can say now to Canadians is please, let your MPs and MLAs know we need a ban. It will take concerted political effort to make it happen but if Kenya, Tunisia, Morocco, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalis, Botswana, Ethiopia, Mauritania and Eritrea can do it, so can Canada. Until then, buy or make your own eco-friendly bags and use them, because no one is going to save our asses but us.
© L D’anna 2017