April 23, 2007

Debate grows around plastic check-out bag ban

By: Mark Sabourin

What appears to be a strengthening movement to ban plastic bags from grocery check-out counters is either a noble environmental initiative or a cynical marketing ploy.

Following the international publicity given to the small Manitoba town of Leaf Rapids for its decision to ban the bags, the cause has been taken up by other municipalities across the country. Retailers have leapt onto the bandwagon as well, following the lead of a number of Quebec-based retailers.

That's bad news for the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), part of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, whose earlier campaign against municipalities pushing for a tax on plastic bags (the so-called plastax) has now morphed into a full-throated defence of the beleaguered product.

"Taxes or ban, they're all trying to get at the same thing, which is to ban the plastic shopping bag," says Cathy Cirko, EPIC's Director General.

Ranged against EPIC in the current round of thrust and parry are the marketing wits of Mississauga-based InStore Products, manufacturer of the re-usable and trademarked "Bring Your Own Bag." EcoWeek's repeated calls to InStore's sales and marketing director Matt Wittek were not returned, but Leaf Rapids Mayor Ed Charrier acknowledges that his town has been used as part of InStore's marketing efforts, and it has done so with his full support.

Following the announcement, InStore Products staged media availability events with Leaf Rapids officials in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto. Town administrator Bond Ryan and Wittek were featured in a Canada AM television segment from Winnipeg.

Charrier says the idea to proceed with a ban came from InStore, though the possibility had been raised by council before. Leaf Rapids had earlier imposed a plastax on plastic bags in an effort to address a litter issue that was both troubling and costly to the small town of 550, carved out of Manitoba's boreal forest. Wind-blown bags from the town's open pit dump were littering an otherwise pristine landscape accessible through a network of trails.

"We were spending $5,000-$6,000 a year just to clean these things up," says Charrier.

InStore Products proposed an outright ban and agreed to support the program by offering 5,000 of its Bring Your Own Bag products to residents free of charge.

The problem with that approach, says EPIC, is that it just doesn't work. Though often labelled single-use products, plastic shopping bags are often re-used - to capture garbage or recyclables, for instance. When they are banned, consumers purchase alternatives, which are often heavier plastic bags, such as the various kitchen catcher products. Retailers, needing to serve customers who don't bring their own bags, opt for paper products. The result, says EPIC: more plastic and paper in landfills, more CO2 and methane emissions, higher waste management costs and more trees destroyed. EPIC points to experience in Ireland, which introduced a plastax in 2002, and Taiwan, which recently reversed a plastic bag ban, to back up its claim.

Many people still don't realize that plastic bags are recyclable, says Cirko. If keeping them out of landfill is an issue, the solution is recycling, and EPIC is more than willing to lend a hand where programs are not already in place.

Those arguments have carried the day for EPIC before the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Greater Vancouver Regional District's waste management committee, and the city of Charlottetown, all of whom recently considered and either withdrew or rejected proposals for a plastax or ban.

In Leaf Rapids, Charrier says compliance among retailers has been complete. The local Co-op store has even challenged all Federated Co-op stores to join the ban. As to the potential for unintended consequences as outlined by EPIC, he's not buying it.

"For the most part, people bought Kitchen Catchers [before the ban]," he says. If anything, Charrier observes, the ban has made residents more conscious of what they're purchasing and the fate of those purchases at end-of-life.

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