Last week China announced that, in order to protect the environment, it was banning the distribution of free plastic shopping bags. Later in the same week, Ontario announced it would NOT ban the distribution of free plastic shopping bags.
What? Are we lagging behind China when it comes to environmental protection? Why is this, exactly?
Ontario’s argument is we reuse and recycle a high proportion of plastic shopping bags rather than having them end up in landfills, or worse, as litter on land, or in lakes, rivers and the ocean. In China, they do not have the infrastructure to recycle their plastic bags, therefore their best bet is to ban them.
It appears we are forgetting the first, and most important, “R” in the three environmental “R’s” (reduce, reuse, recycle) is reduce. It’s a very simple mantra: Reduce whatever we can; what we must use, we should reuse; and what we can’t reuse we should recycle.
Reusing and recycling are not a substitute for reducing. And not every shopping bag gets recycled. Many do end up in landfills and as litter. Plastic bags have been found in the bellies of marine animals such as sea turtles. Given the geographic location of Ontario, those bags probably didn’t come from us, but still, our lakes probably all contain their complement of plastic bags.
We can’t deny plastic bags are useful. They can be reused for everything from picking up after your pet to bringing your lunch to school/work, to making a painting smock for a child, to garbage can liners. However, most households contain more plastic bags than they can ever reuse and if we’re lucky the un-reused bags get recycled.
In China — and for that matter other countries such as Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Taiwan and Bangladesh — the bags are not banned outright. However the distribution of the bags for FREE is banned. If you are picking up milk from the grocery store and think you won’t need a bag but end up also buying eggs, cookies, toothpaste and a birthday card, you can still pay and get a plastic bag to carry your loot home. Many discount supermarket chains in Ontario already operate like this. The result is you are more careful about how many bags you take and you try to remember to bring your reusable cloth bags when you shop.
After Ontario announced it would not ban free plastic bags, the Toronto Star conducted a poll to see how its readers felt about this decision. Seventy-three per cent of those who responded believed Ontario should ban free plastic bags.
So, how about this Ontario. Just because the stores give them out for free, it doesn’t mean we have to take them. Let’s show Queen’s Park we don’t need a law to make us do the right thing.
If you don’t have them already, get yourself some reusable cloth bags, available at most supermarkets and other stores for between 99 cents and $1.50, and (this is the hard part for us) let’s REMEMBER to bring them with us when we shop.
Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor at Ryerson University, studying ecosystem ecology. Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, an environmental consulting company.