August 21, 2006

Plastics industry group challenges merits of proposed shopping bag tax

In a potentially controversial issue, Vancouver politicians will be voting this fall on a proposed 25-cent tax on each and every plastic shopping bag in B.C. The tax is being spearheaded by several councillors in the province's lower mainland, including Janice Harris of North Vancouver, Craig Speirs of Maple Ridge and Arjun Singh of Kamloops. They want the Union of BC Municipalities to pass a motion at its meeting in October calling on the province to levy the shopping bag tax. The municipal politicians cite as their model a similar tax introduced in Ireland in March 2002.

In response, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) is gearing up to fight the proposal by launching a consumer information campaign and by challenging the tax proponents to a public debate in Vancouver prior to the vote.

"They tell a good story. Unfortunately, it is based on inaccurate and biased information," said Cathy Cirko, CPIA vice-president of environment and health. "What they're not telling you is that the Irish tax has been a failure, creating problems for consumers, retailers and ironically, the environment."

The CPIA reports that Irish shoppers have responded to the tax by switching to other types of bags, mainly paper bags and "kitchen catcher" bags, made of heavier-grade plastic. And while the number of plastic shopping bags has declined by 90% over the past four years, sales of the heavier plastic bags have increased by 400% and the overall amount of plastic resin used in Ireland has in fact grown by 10%.

The return by a number of retailers to the old-fashioned paper bag is termed "a step backwards for the environment," said the CPIA's Cirko. The association claims studies show that manufacturing of paper grocery bags is twice as energy intensive as that of plastic bags and that paper bags have 80% per cent more impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Still other retailers in Ireland have responded to the tax by offering reusable cloth bags. However, concerns have arisen about public health risks, as these bags must be washed frequently to avoid food contamination. This, in turn, has prompted retailers to increase the amount of food packaging. For example, bananas, traditionally sold loose, are now sold on trays and shrink-wrapped. "Where's the environmental 'win' in more packaging?" asked Cirko.

Other unforeseen adverse results of the tax have included a significant increase in shoplifting (as it is now harder for retailers to determine who has and hasn't paid for their goods) and in "push-outs," where shoppers fill their carts and baskets and walk straight out without paying. This is estimated to be costing retailers of 10 million euros, or $14.3 million (Cdn), annually.

Ultimately, says the CPIA, the tax has created problems; it has not "solved" anything. Addressing the claim by bag tax proponents that that eliminating plastic shopping bags will reduce litter and divert waste from landfill, the association points out that plastic shopping bags in Canada account for less than half of one per cent of all litter, and less than one per cent of residential solid waste by weight.

BC has one of the most extensive retail bag take-back programs in Canada, the CPIA reports, with about 30% of all plastic shopping bags being recovered and recycled. In addition, about 50% are re-used to contain garbage.

"Is there more we can do?" asked Cirko. "Absolutely. Manufacturers and retailers are working hard to increase the recovery rate. We want all of the bags back because they are a valuable commodity and can be recycled," she said.

The CPIA's comments on paper bags drew a prompt response from PPEC, the Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council.

"Frankly, this seems to be more of a litter issue than anything else and should be tackled on that basis," said PPEC executive director John Mullinder. "For a national plastic association to claim that paper grocery bags are 'a step backward for the environment' and to quote selectively from so-called life cycle studies is both unfortunate and unhelpful," he continued.

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is intended as an internal monitoring and continuous improvement tool, Mullinder noted. It is not one to be used inappropriately by competing industries or by governments, mainly because widely varying assumptions and averages make "apples-to-apples" comparisons very difficult, he added.

"For example, paper bags in Canada are made from renewable resources (mostly from wood chips, shavings and sawdust left over from logging operations) whereas plastics are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels (oil and gas)," said Mullinder

The real issue in BC and elsewhere, he continued, seems to be litter. How do you discourage littering from a package design perspective and how do you encourage consumers not to litter once they have the packaging? The real issues, he concluded, seem to be behaviour and consequences, rather than the environmental merits of paper or plastic.

More information is available from John Mullinder at PPEC, 416/626-0350, E-mail ppec@ppec-paper.com, Web site www.ppec-paper.com.

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