Just one word: plastics
Let me start by saying that paying 5 cents for a plastic bag is hardly reason for calling in the militia. The concept is rather simple: if you don’t want to pay, bring your own bag.
But will it deter people from using plastic? And what do businesses do with the money they make from every plastic bag they sell? These are the policy questions that demand answers; curmudgeonly griping does little to advance the discussion.
First, plastic bags are environmental hazards. They are made with polyethylene, a petroleum product. Since they are made with a dirty, finite resource, they do not begin life as a sustainable product.
Even if plastic bags have multiple uses, most end up in landfill (if you use a plastic bag for your kitchen waste, do you keep re-using this bag? No, I didn’t think so. You leave it and its contents for waste pickup). And never mind those bags that end up in streams, fields, snagged in trees. In fact, more bags appear to end up blowing across the landscape than settling in for a long existence in landfills.
Plastic bags take about 1000 years to degrade. University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson tied plastic bags (and ones that were supposedly biodegradable) to moorings in Plymouth Harbour. After leaving them for a year in salt water, Thompson untied the bags and found that he could still carry groceries in them.
Plastic bags kill. Over the millennium it takes for a bag to break down, it spends its time slowly leaching toxins into the surrounding soil and water. These toxins enter the food chain. A more direct assault on animals is through ingestion of plastic bags. Some estimates indicate that about 1 billion seabirds and mammals die every year.
I know that there are still those who like comfortable, convenient lives; but if they think the environmental havoc I’ve only briefly touched on above has little impact on their quotidian existences, they are, literally, dead wrong. Further, I’m not interested in some people’s quaint anecdotes about how they had to carry ice cream because they didn’t want to pay for a bag. Think ahead or spend the 5 cents. Rather, I find the scientific rationale against plastic bags more compelling. So please, if you disagree with me, refute the above points.
But back to my first question; does 5 cents serve as a deterrent? Maybe. Many countries such as Ireland, Taiwan, South Africa, Australia and Bangladesh are ahead of Toronto and Canada on taxing plastic bags. In March 2002, the County Cork in Ireland levied a 20 cent (US) tax on plastic bags and saw a 95 per cent reduction in their use. Perhaps 5 cents is too low.
As for the second question – what do businesses do with the money from every bag they sell – the original idea was that the money would go to the City for environmental programs. But it seems that the business lobby won this concession and allowed merchants to pocket the nickel, with the City urging them to donate to local environmental initiatives. Sure.
If anything, the plastic bag policy falls tragically short. The 5 cents may not be enough to terminate plastic bags altogether and businesses profit from your shortsightedness.
Finally, I agree that the onus should be on manufacturers to stop with the excessive packaging. But given the ubiquity of the plastic bag, this is a good place to start to put a halt to our obsession with plastics (apologies to the father in “The Graduate”).
The plastic bag is an environmental Shiva. Banning it is more than a symbolic gesture. If we can see a 95 per cent reduction in plastic bag use, we will have done something magnanimous for the fowl and beasts and streams and fields around us. In the meantime, those stodgy conservatives, who are usually on the wrong side of history, will eventually catch up.