Shopping Like it’s 1979

Posted on January 3, 2018

As residents of Montreal flipped their calendars over to a new year earlier this week, it was more than the picture on the page that changed. Montreal became the first major Canadian city to enact a ban on LDPE bags – the type you get at the grocery store and other retailers and food vendors. Wood Buffalo in Alberta and a few smaller communities across the prairies have had bans in place since as early as 2010, and Montreal is the first large Canadian city to follow through on a commitment to changing the conversation about how plastics can be consumed in their city. This is a major step forward, even if it is years behind other countries.

The first plastic sandwich bag was developed in the 1950s, and department stores started using plastic shopping bags in the late 1970s. Supermarket chains were not using plastic bags until the 1980s – and the efforts to phase them out started almost as quickly as the bags were deployed across the globe.

In 2018, an estimated 1 Trillion LDPE bags will be used around the world. It’s hard to get exact figures on recycling rates, but it’s estimated that between 5.5% and 6.8% of those trillion bags will be recycled. The rest may be reused once or twice, but nearly all will eventually end up in landfills.

That’s an estimated 945,000,000,000 bags in the landfill this year, or roughly 11,462,850,000 pounds of plastic that will not breakdown or biodegrade in the anaerobic environment of modern landfills.

That is nothing short of horrifying.

Cities like Fort McMurray and Montreal are leading in Canada. California has also banned the bags, as have many international cities. Morocco, once the 2nd largest consumer of plastic bags per capita in the world - behind the USA, passed a law in 2015 banning the use of plastic bags nationwide. The law officially came into effect, and into enforcement, July 1, 2016.

Here in Calgary, John Mar invited our city to openly discuss a plastic bag phase out in 2009. In 2016, Diane Colley-Urquhart revisited the question. While some retailers have taken independent steps to shift consumers away from plastic bags – applying a levy to each bag – the issue remains unregulated in Calgary and in most of Alberta.

So what is the answer? How can we shift away from using LDPE bags? I’m not sure what would work best for our city, but I’ve done a lot of reading up on what has worked elsewhere. In each phase out that was considered smooth, a government levy was applied to bags ahead of the ban. This is a tax, identical to the levy you pay on electronics in Alberta. In the most successful cases, the levy increased gradually – imagine starting at $0.10 per bag for year one, and advancing to as much as $0.37 per bag in year two. Ireland reduced plastic bag use by more than 90% using this strategy, reducing plastic bag litter from 5% of all litter in 2001 to just 0.1% in 2015.

Is there a perfect solution? Maybe. We won’t know unless we talk about the issue and try something. Do you, our community members, want to see a government-lead shift away from plastic bags in Alberta? I know that I would personally support any movement by any governing body to shift society away from the amount of single-use plastic that we send to landfill each year. My one request, if a levy were installed, would be to use the funds raised from the levy to support environmental programming in the province. This is something that we are not seeing from many retailers who collect bag fees, and I see this as a gap in the social contract that some retailers have with their consumers.

What can you do today?

1. Stop using single use bags. Full stop. Buy reusable bags, crates, boxes or other carrying aides and use them. There was a time just over 20 years ago when plastic bags were not ubiquitous – consumers and retailers made do with cotton, paper, and cardboard. Can you go a full week shopping like it’s 1979? How about a year?

2. Invest in environmental causes. Green Calgary is a grassroots charity working to address the biggest gaps in environmental literacy. We need your support to continue offering programs. Please donate today.

3. Invest your voice. If this is an issue you are passionate about, tell people why it matters to you. Share the issues you are passionate about with the people you are passionate about – invite them to join you in your “shopping like it’s 1979” experiment, or if they are up to it you can challenge them. See who can go longer without using a single use bag.

4. Shop local. Shop at places where your values are echoed by the parent company. Community Natural Foods doesn’t even have an LDPE bag to sell you, and Calgary Co-op is committed to investing in our community. They are among a number of local businesses that you will find are actively engaging in environmental conversations in our city.

5. Join your community. Join other community members at the Green Hub at Green Calgary on the morning of January 27, 2018. We are collaborating with Boomerang Bags to deliver a fun morning of recycled t-shirt bag making, and we need 6 to 8 volunteers. The bags will be used by Green Calgary’s EcoStore and Little Green Library, as well as other fantastic local retailers and businesses.

Is your #GreenGoal to do away with plastic bags this year? If it is, please share with us your successes and challenges, and your tips for managing this change in your life. Reach out via Twitter or Facebook.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for being part of the Green Calgary Community.

Be well,

Conor Tapp
Executive Director