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Attention Shoppers: Do You Really Need That Plastic Bag?
“The plastic bag is an accepted part of Canadian shopping culture, but it doesn’t have to be. Every year we use over 9 billion plastic shopping bags in Canada. That’s 17,000 bags per minute.”
– Greener footprints
Canadians use 9-15 billion plastic bags each year
To understand how many bags there really are, imagine this: if we tie 9 billion bags together, they will circle the earth 55 times (Green Footprints).
Every year it is estimated that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used around the globe. Although they were not widely used until the 1980s, their influence has already been felt around the world.
A quick walk around your neighborhood can often reveal just how prevalent plastic bags are when it comes to the litter problem. Hanging from tree branches or tangled in fences, plastic bags have become a depressing object in urban green spaces such as parks, schoolyards and sports fields. Such brood is not only ugly; it can also contribute to major environmental issues.
Large accumulations of discarded plastic bags can clog drainage systems and contribute to major flooding. Such flooding caused widespread destruction in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998. Manila has also been vulnerable to flooding as a result of sewers clogged with plastic bags. In 2009, more than 80% of the capital of the Philippines was submerged. Hundreds were killed and thousands more left homeless as entire neighborhoods were destroyed.
Other aquatic chaos created by plastic bags has also proven deadly for those who live in the water.
An estimated 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and other marine animals are killed each year by plastic bags, which can suffocate their victims or starve them to death, according to Planet Ark, an international environmental group. A dead gray whale that washed ashore in Seattle in 2010 was found to have more than 20 plastic bags in its stomach.
A 2012 study by the University of British Columbia found that 93 percent of northern beached fulmars (migratory seabirds related to the albatross) had bellies full of plastic—a significant increase from the last time they were tested, in 1980. .
In fact, plastic packaging is piling up so fast that it is expected to outnumber fish in the sea by 2050, according to a recent report from the World Economic Forum.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, “Few plastic bags are recycled. Most are used for a short time to carry groceries and then can be reused as garbage bags or to wrap dog poop before ending up in landfills or the ocean. People argue that, because they make up about one percent of the volume of waste in landfills, we shouldn’t worry. But one percent of the mass amounts of what ends up in landfills is too much, especially since plastics don’t biodegrade.”
Most plastic bags are made of polyethylene and can take hundreds of years to decompose.
But steps are being taken to reduce the environmental footprint of plastic bags. The use of plastic bags is either restricted or completely banned in over a quarter of the world’s countries.
China, Italy, Bangladesh, South Africa and parts of Australia have banned plastic bags entirely, while municipal bans exist in parts of India, Mexico, Britain, the US and Canada.
Plastaxes – taxes on plastic bags paid by consumers – and new recycling laws have also been brought in to help address the issue.
In February 2016, Walmart Canada began phasing out single-use shopping bags in Canadian Walmart stores. Instead, customers will be offered reusable bags at a 25 cent discount. But plastic bags will still be offered for five cents in an effort to reduce the number of single-use bags they hand out.
In my neck of the woods (Sydney, British Columbia), the grocery store I frequent doesn’t have plastic grocery bags, but they do offer single-use brown paper bags—or, of course, you can use reusable grocery bags or a reusable cardboard box. specially designed to hold the weight of groceries. My personal preference is a box and some reusable bags.
Although my community is supposed to be very eco-friendly, I have to say that based on my personal observations, most grocery store customers still choose the disposable brown paper bag over the reusable bag and/or box. And I’m not sure why. Convenience, perhaps?
What about those little produce bags?
However, when it comes to bulking up my fruits, vegetables and groceries, I still find myself reaching for the little clear plastic bags from the roll dispenser every time I go to the grocery store. So this is one area I will work on improving: remembering to bring my plastic produce and bulk grocery bags to the store so I can reuse them multiple times instead of always getting new ones .
7 easy ways to reduce your use of shopping bags
1. Use reusable cloth shopping bags (keep them in your vehicle or somewhere you’ll remember to use them)
2. Consider using a reusable cardboard box specially designed to hold groceries
3. Consult customer service or send a letter/email to stores to ask what they are doing to reduce the use of plastic bags
4. Assess whether you need to use bags as litter liners – if you don’t need to use them, then don’t
5. Reuse plastic bags as much as possible
6. Recycle the bags you can’t reuse by taking them back to the grocery store for recycling (or using other plastic bag recycling programs)
7. Avoid unnecessary use by telling the cashier you don’t need a bag for one or two items
Reusable bags are the solution
A strong, reusable bag will last for years and only needs to be used 5 times to have a lower environmental impact than a single-use bag.
It’s not hard to use a reusable shopping bag… but it’s a choice to make it a priority.
The solution to reducing plastic bag waste is literally in the bag: use fewer bags in the first place. And, if you must use one, then be creative in getting multiple uses out of it. And when that’s not an option, be sure to recycle it.
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