What is the best alternative to the single-use plastic bag? It depends

Ottawa recently announced that it eliminate some single-use plastics by 2025, but finding sustainable alternatives is trickier than you might think.

The ban, which targets six categories of plastics, is part of a Liberal government effort to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada showed that in 2016, Canadians threw away three million tonnes of plastic waste, of which only 9% was ultimately recycled. The rest ended up in landfills, waste-to-energy facilities or the environment, where it can harm wildlife while taking hundreds of years to break down.

One of the single-use items on the banned list is the plastic checkout bag that many Canadians use for groceries and other types of errands. According to government data, up to 15 billion plastic checkout bags are used in the country every year.

They are also one of the main sources of plastic waste found on the shores. In 2021, nearly 17,000 plastic bags were collected during community clean-ups.

Even before the federal government’s decision, some jurisdictions, including PEI, New Scotland and a number of communities in British Columbia had already banned single-use plastic bags. Some major retailers such as Sobeys and walmart also stopped offering them.

The majority of Canadians are also moving away from single-use plastic bags. In a 2019 survey, 96% of respondents said they used their own bags or containers for shopping, although only 47% said they had always done so.

Full life cycle review

The challenge for eco-conscious shoppers is that alternatives to single-use plastic bags also leave an environmental footprint.

A United Nations Environment Program 2020 Study analyzed the results of seven Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) on shopping bags published since 2010. An LCA assesses the environmental impacts of a product or service, essentially, from cradle to grave. This includes:

  • Extraction of raw materials.
  • Production.
  • Logistics and distribution.
  • Use.
  • End of life.

The study found that the environmental rating of bags varies depending on the criteria you consider. For example, one type of bag may do well in terms of waste reduction, but be a poor option when it comes to water and land use to make it.

The number of times a reusable bag is used is also crucial, according to the study. At the lower end, a paper bag should be used four to eight times to have less impact on the climate than a single-use plastic bag. Meanwhile, a cotton bag needs to be used 50 to 150 times to be environmentally superior, according to the study.

Given the impacts of all life cycle stages, one of the best options for buyers would be to skip the bag altogether whenever possible, said Tony Walker, associate professor of environmental studies at Dalhousie University. in Halifax.

“Reducing consumption of anything and everything is essential because everything takes resources and energy to produce,” said Walker, who advised the federal government on its Zero plastic waste program and Ocean Plastics Charter.

If you need an alternative to plastic bags, here’s an overview of the pros and cons of some common options.

cotton bag

The cotton sack has greater environmental impacts than other types of sacks during production due to the large amount of energy required to grow, irrigate, and fertilize the cotton.

However, its durability lends itself to hundreds, if not thousands of uses, making it an eco-friendly alternative, says Walker.

Additionally, cotton bags are made from a renewable resource and are degradable at end of life, although the 2020 UN study notes that how they are disposed of matters. Waste incineration for cotton bags is climate neutral and therefore a better option than landfilling, where research indicates that cotton degradation releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Paper bag

Paper bags have some advantages: They can decompose easily, they can be placed in compost bins depending on your jurisdiction, and they can be recycled into paper, Walker says.

However, like cotton, their production requires quite a lot of energy. They also require forest products as raw materials and consume more fuel for transportation than other lighter materials.

Tony Walker, an associate professor of environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, advised the federal government on its zero plastic waste program and ocean plastics charter. (Robert Guertin/Radio Canada)

Another major disadvantage of paper is its low durability.

“It kind of keeps us stuck in this single-use model,” said Sarah King, Greenpeace Canada’s Oceans and Plastics Campaigner. “I definitely encourage people to think about what they already have and how they can fit it into their routine.”

Reusable plastic bag or trash can

Some retailers offer reusable bags made of plastic materials, including low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polyester. Others offer reusable plastic bins that shoppers can carry their items in.

Loblaws, which introduced a tax on plastic bags in 2007, made both options available to customers. In response to a question from CBC News, the company said its President’s Choice reusable black bag is made from 99% PET fiber made from post-consumer recycled plastic, while its green plastic bins are made from from high density polyethylene.

Walker said a reusable bag with recycled content “is a fantastic thing, better than wasting it.”

But, “it’s still made from a fossil fuel product, so it should be disposed of very carefully at end of life,” he said.

Biodegradable bag

These bags are often marketed as environmentally friendly due to their ability to break down into harmless material faster than conventional plastics.

A pile of plastic and bioplastic bags collected during a cleanup at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver in 2019. (Green Peace)

But Walker says very few are actually 100% “organic” – meaning derived from biological sources such as plants or algae – and can contain up to 25% petroleum products, requiring specific conditions. to decompose at end of life in waste management or recycling facilities.

Indeed, a British study published in 2019 tested the deterioration of biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable (containing additives for faster decomposition), compostable and conventional plastic bags in four environments: sea, soil, open air and controlled laboratory conditions. After three years, none of the bags showed substantial deterioration in any environment.

Even when biodegradable bags degrade, unless they’re 100% biobased, they risk leaking microplastic pollution into the environment, Walker said.

And there’s another big caveat, even for 100% bio-based bags.

“You could get plant-based material that otherwise would have been land given over to food production – which could cause food shortages in food-insecure parts of the world – or it could have been virgin forest. who was shot to make this material,” Walker said.

“So it’s not a panacea.”

Consumers can drive change

Consumers have a lot of power to influence manufacturers and retailers to improve some of these “first generation” alternatives, says a business expert.

“It’s up to us as consumers to push this with our own behavior,” said Barry Cross, assistant professor and distinguished researcher in business strategy at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. .

Cross also cited the potential role of some of the larger fast food and retail organizations like Lululemon, which have “the size and reach to be able to influence some of these packaging developers and some of the innovation.” associated with the creation of new alternatives.”

But is it enough? Speak federal government estimatesthe six banned product categories accounted for only about 3% of the total amount of plastic waste created in Canada in 2019.

This will make it difficult for Canada to meet the goal of zero plastic waste by 2030, said King of Greenpeace Canada.

Steven Guilbeault, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, announces the ban of certain single-use plastics on a beach in Quebec City on June 20, as Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos looks on. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

“Unless they add more items to the ban list, unless they actually set overall targets for reducing plastic production and also invest in a transition to truly zero waste centered on reuse, there’s no way they’ll meet their 2030 goal,” she says.

However, all three experts CBC News spoke to agreed that banning plastic bags and the other five categories of single-use plastic is a positive thing, especially when it comes to changing mindsets. about waste and pollution.

“These are low-hanging fruits – these items, many of us can easily live without,” Walker said. “If we can do without it, it will help the government and consumers to start thinking more carefully about the plastics we use, especially the single-use plastics that we can do without.

“So yes, although on paper it’s only a small step forward, a step forward by any means is better than no action at all.”

Bryce K. Locke