American Beauty holds a weird place in our cultural history. The shelved play turned Oscar-winning movie released in 1999 explores the weird stuff that lives just below the surface of our culture. In the middle of this meandering journey into the exploration of materialism, human sexuality and taboo there’s a long, awkward, three-minute ode to a plastic bag. With the passage of time, it’s a bit weird that two of the movie’s main characters — Kevin Spacey, and plastic bags — have become villains in real life. How exactly did plastic bags come to hold such a place in our society?
A brief history
The polyethylene plastic required to make our grocery bags was first invented by accident in 1933. The process used to make this plastic evolved over several years and was perfected just before WWII, where it was used to insulate radar wires, which in turn allowed Britain to eke out an advantage in the Battle of Britain. In the 1960s a Swede by the name of Sten Gustaf Thulin developed the first plastic bag using this polyethylene process. These bags really took off in the 1980s as they became available at large U.S. supermarkets. This article from the Los Angeles Times in 1986 tells of how, just as it is today, the introduction of the plastic grocery bag was not without controversy.
The first place to ban plastic bags, or at least try to, was Bangladesh in 2002. Although that ban hasn’t been successful, it’s worth noting the reason for the ban. It wasn’t due to concerns about carbon footprint, carbon emissions, or climate change. It was because plastic bags were physically clogging water infrastructure which allowed “floodwater to persist for two months.”
Closer to home, the city of Esquimalt tried to ban plastic bags in 2018, but the Canadian Plastic Bag Association successfully fought to have it struck down in court because the city hadn’t cleared it with the provincial government first. P.E.I. also banned single-use plastic bags on June 1, 2019, and it seems to be going pretty well. According to Island Waste Management Corporation CEO Gerry Moore, in the last year, 120 tonnes of plastic bags disappeared out of P.E.I.’s annual average collection of 15,000 tonnes. Or, in other words, collection dropped by 0.008 per cent of the island’s waste.
By the numbers
In Nova Scotia, according to a 2017 waste audit done by Divert NS, we throw out 284,171 tonnes of garbage every year. According to a spokesperson from the Department of Environment, we recycle 43,040 tonnes every year. That’s a combined total of 327,211 tonnes per year of junk. Just to give an idea of what this looks like, when taking the ferry and looking at the dockyard, imagine roughly 68 frigates made of garbage, and that’s how much waste is produced in Nova Scotia, every year.
Nova Scotia’s waste is proportionally similar to that of PEI; in both provinces, plastic bags made up 0.008 per cent of their total waste.
The knock-on effect
Banning plastics in general is a contentious issue. Like most complex ecosystems our society has thousands upon millions of possible variables that all work together to create the world we live in. If something human created exists in our environment, it does so for a reason. That reason doesn’t go away just because an item does. People will still need to get their groceries from the aisles of the store and into their homes.
For a lot of people, plastic grocery bags live a second life as a garbage bag. In Nova Scotia, only one in four grocery bags were thrown out clean. It’s unclear if the soiled bags were soiled because they had been used as a garbage bag or just because a jar of pasta sauce broke on the way home. But it does indicate that in Nova Scotia people are reusing their ‘single-use’ bags. One of the main factors for parents choosing a diaper pail, for example, is whether or not grocery bags can be used in them, which saves money.
When the grocery store supply of plastic bags goes away, a study out of California found sales of purpose-built garbage bags spike. Since they’re designed to be garbage bags, and take a beating without breaking, the plastic is heavier. And since it’s heavier plastic, it weighs more and eats into the expected plastic reduction.
One of the most contentious points of this debate is the carbon footprint of replacement bags. The process of creating paper bags: growing trees, cutting trees, turning the trees into paper, and turning that paper into a bag, is intensive. Even though paper bags can be recycled or composted, the tree will never be uncut, and the chemicals required to make it into paper will never be unused. And paper bags still need to be re-used at least three times to be carbon neutral, only one less use than plastic bags.
The reusable shopping bags that often replace plastic are so environmentally intensive they need to be used somewhere between 131 times, or 20,000 times in order to be considered carbon neutral. The huge variance in the number comes from the different methodology of the studies and the type of material the bags are made out of.
Based on this research, in order for a plastic bag ban to be considered successful, the only goal of the policy can be to “ban plastic bags.” Had Bangladesh been successful in implementing their ban, they would have prevented their flood infrastructure from being clogged. That’s an effective use of a plastic bag ban.
If a plastic bag ban policy is being sold by politicians as a victory in the fight against climate change or something to that effect, that claim should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Without changing the underlying consumption patterns that made society need plastic bags in the first place, it’s at best a sideways move on climate change.
If consumers forget their reusable bags and buy a new one more frequently than every 131 shopping trips then a plastic bag ban is likely worse for the environment than not banning bags. If reusable bags are being used as promotional items by corporations more frequently than every 131 shopping trips, same problem.
What about animals eating plastic, you might ask? This ban protects them! The plastic that wild animals eat is plastic that’s not collected at the end of driveways. The only way to eliminate plastic that isn’t collected is by preventing it from existing in the first place, hence a ban. So to that end, a ban is very effective at eliminating plastic bags from the natural environment.
If the goal of this policy is, as stated, “banning single-use plastic bags to encourage waste reduction at the source and to help keep plastic out of our environment and landfills,” then it seems it will be effective. Although when factoring in the expected rise of purpose built garbage bags that’ll bring back about 30 per cent of the plastic eliminated by the ban.
But, and it’s a Sir Mix-A-Lot sized but, there’s a potential for an unintended harmful consequence of this policy. Our leadership has a habit of enacting policies that seem to be helpful and filling a need, but in actuality, do nothing of the sort. After 9/11 airport security became more elaborate, but in a way that doesn’t make flying actually safer. It’s called security theatre. We do the same thing with Remembrance Day. If this policy doesn’t do much, if anything, for the environment, what’s the point of it?
There’s an argument to be made that policies like eliminating single-use plastics are climate change theatre. This policy feels effective because it’s forcing people to change. Consumers can feel the effects of this policy, and feel they’re doing their part, but what does it actually do? Eliminating plastic bags means there’s still roughly 68 frigates worth of consumption by-product thrown out in Nova Scotia. How much damage was done to the environment in the production of these 68 frigates worth of by-product? That’s something a bag ban doesn’t address.
There’s a real danger that policies with little to no real positive effect on climate change will mislead voters into supporting politicians who don’t have climate change as a serious priority. 76 per cent of Canadians believe Canada needs to be doing more to prevent climate change, while at the same time politicians understand it’s important to at least appear to take climate change seriously.
There is no incentive for politicians to do real work on climate change if the appearance of work is enough for them to get re-elected.
So with all that said, the plastic bag ban will be effective at eliminating plastic bags, which does have some marginal effectiveness at protecting our environment and preventing very small parts of climate change. But in this case, the tradeoffs, like increased carbon footprints, and the potential of the perception of progress leading to increased complacency around waste and consumption give this policy potential to be massive hindrance in the long term of preventing climate change.
In the stories about this plastic bag ban, environmental groups were quoted as saying it’s a good first step. But there’s no indication that there are any more steps planned to reduce consumer waste. As a stand-alone policy for preventing and mitigating climate change a plastic bag ban just straight sucks.
Where your political parties stand on this policy
(Editor’s note: It’s hard to explain what we were trying to do with this story, the comms people for the various parties were treating this like a ‘normal’ news story. Their responses should get better as we do more of these, and they better understand where their party’s correspondence fits into these stories)
Green Party of Nova Scotia
“There is nothing controversial about choosing to reduce waste, save energy and encourage local production of manufactured goods. Nova Scotia’s ban on single-use plastic bags is not only common sense legislation for our environment, but good for our economy too.
Many jurisdictions in Canada and around the world have banned single-use plastic bags from markets because they are a major source of pollution and an irresponsible use of harmful carbon-intense products. Paper bags, and re-usable alternatives mean that commerce and shopping can continue without any meaningful downside other than a one-time adoption of new habits.
For businesses and Nova Scotians, reusable packaging represent new opportunity. Plastic bags, though producible in Nova Scotia, use tons of harmful chemicals and raw plastic not available in our region that leech into our waters and soil once discarded. Paper bags can be made using paper products from our own forestry industry, supporting local jobs.” – Green Party of Nova Scotia Communications Director Michael Uhlarik in an emailed statement.
Nova Scotia NDP
“There are so many things about the context of this legislation that are now known so incontrovertibly. We know that marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980 and that 80 per cent of all marine debris is composed of plastics. As the U.N. report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services established earlier this year, we know that marine plastic pollution is directly affecting today 267 species, including 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of sea birds, and 43 per cent of marine animals.
In a province as defined by the ocean as Nova Scotia is, and where the health of the ocean is so determinative for us both in the present and in our future, a ban on single-use plastic bags really has just the status of common sense. That is to say, it’s time. It’s time for Nova Scotia to join the range of jurisdictions from P.E.I. on the east coast to Victoria on the west coast that have enacted bans.” – Gary Burrill, in the Nova Scotia legislature Oct. 28, 2019.
PC Party of Nova Scotia
“Too much plastic ends up where it shouldn’t: beaches, woodlands and waters. We are always looking for opportunities to consult with communities, individuals and businesses to reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic in our society. We will continue to do so.” – Tim Houston, Leader of the PCs, in an emailed statement.
A former Naval Officer turned journalist, Matt Stickland is committed to empowering his community to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make their city a better place.
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