Bye bye plastic bags

February 6, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

February is the month of Valentine’s Day, slightly longer daylight hours and now it also means: No more plastic grocery bags at Sobeys! 

As of January 31, Sobeys-named stores stopped providing single-use shopping bags. Other stores in their empire, like Freshco, IGA, Foodland and others, will continue having plastic bags for a while longer.

Sobeys made the announcement last July to give shoppers a fair warning. This bold move makes them the first national grocery chain to eliminate plastic bags from all their 255 flagship locations across Canada. 

While it may seem like a bold move, it is a long overdue act of corporate and social responsibility – you need only look at the numbers and the impact of single-use plastic bags.

 The  Sobeys action alone will remove approximately 225 million plastic bags from circulation every year. Several Canadian provinces and cities have already banned or plan to ban plastic bags, in neighbouring America, eight states have followed suit, and worldwide over 90 countries have a complete ban and another 36 regulate the usage through fees. Bag fees have indeed proven very successful, in some cities or countries reducing bag usage up to 90%. 

Sadly, our big city neighbour Toronto took a big step backwards. After initially imposing a plastic bag fee of five cents in March 2009, City Council eliminated that fee and voted against a bag ban in June 2012. As a result, following their initial success of a 50% reduction in plastic bag usage, it increased again by 26%.

According to the federal government, Canadians use up to 15 billion plastic bags a year. Globally, that number is an estimated and mind-boggling 5 trillion, according to the UN Environment Programme. While bags often do get a brief second use, their final and all-too-timely resting place is the landfill or, disturbingly, in nature. And there are numerous reasons why that is bad. 

When disposed of improperly, i.e. not in the garbage, they blow and float around and can clog waterways, entangle and choke animals and marine life, and in some countries provide a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. 

When exposed to UV light and the abrasive action of wind and waves, the plastic starts breaking down into small pieces, called microplastics. These make up as much as 85% of plastic pollution found on shorelines around the world, not just from plastic bags but a large variety of plastics. 

To animals, these small pieces look like food and many marine animals ingest them mistakenly. Once they have a large enough accumulation in their stomach, they often die of starvation because they falsely feel full, or sharp pieces of hard plastics can cause internal damage. 

Scientists have found far too many seabirds and other marine animals washed up on shore, which after examination showed stomachs filled with little and sometimes large plastic pieces, which, of course, don’t bring them any nutritional value. It affects seabirds, fish, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. In 2017, a large sperm whale was found beached with 64 pounds of human rubbish in its digestive system!

Microplastics are also a health problem for humans. Found in fish, shrimp, lobsters, mussels and oysters, they travel up the food chain and onto our plates. Preliminary results from one study showed up to eight pieces of microplastics in oysters or clams (Ghent University research, 2014). What that does to human health in the long-term is yet to be determined, though it is known already that certain chemical ingredients we ingest through food and water are endocrine disruptors, i.e. they disturb male and female animals’ hormonal system. Naturally, manufacturers don’t want to hear that. 

Even when disposed of properly, plastic bags made of polyethylene can take centuries to decompose in landfill, and they are petroleum-based and therefore a non-renewable resource. It can take around 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic bags. 

Most municipalities don’t allow them in their curbside collection because they do not have the recycling facilities required. Some large chain stores have a plastic-bag collection program that takes bags separately to a facility with the right recycling capacity. Toronto, for example, collects bundled plastic bags as part of its blue bin program. 

This so-called film plastic is then baled and shipped at facilities that convert them into plastic flakes and pellets used to produce new film plastic products. I would hazard a guess that only very few plastic bags end up getting recycled. 

The better way is for us to learn to live with fewer or no single-use plastic bags, embrace the return to brown paper bags and better yet, remember to bring your own reusable shopping bags or crates to grocery stores. 

The environment will thank you.

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