Montreal’s plastic bag ban – a step towards sustainability?

by | Jan 11, 2018 | Environment, lifestyle

As of January 2018, all of Montreal’s groceries and retailers will need to find a substitution to single-use plastic bags. Indeed, after years of charging a small fee as an incentive to reduce plastic use, the city has now decided to fully place a definitive ban on this option, making Montreal the first major city in Canada to implement such a law.

This bylaw aims all plastic bags with a thickness of less than 50 microns (or 0.05 millimeters), meaning soft single-use bags like the ones you get in a grocery store. This being said, thicker bags are still accepted because of their higher rate of recyclability. Oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, oxo-fragmentable and biodegradable plastic bags are other kinds of soft plastics also part of the regulation. If you have never heard these terms before, they refer to conventional plastic bags (petroleum based) with added components that help fasten their biodegradation process. In theory, they sound like a good idea but in reality they have no real benefit for the environment – they might even be more harmful. As a matter of fact, they require a specific amount of light, heat and oxygen to successfully decompose. Once they are sent to the landfill and squished between all the other crap, they are not given the proper environment to achieve decomposition. In fact, even if these bags biodegrade, plastic particles still linger in the atmosphere even if they are not visible to the eye. Finally, the additives contained in those “biodegradable’’ prevent them from being recyclable. Plastic that doesn’t completely decompose nor can be recycled? That doesn’t sound like a good thing.  

why the ban?

Essentially, soft plastic bags are recyclable per say, but statistics show that in Quebec, their recuperation rate is of only 14%. The reason is that their flimsiness makes them harder to retrieve by the recycling machines and easier to get lost in the environment – eventually ending up in the stomach of animals in the ocean, thus in the food we eat. Sustainability is also measured by the amount of resources required to develop a product VS the amount of time it will take before it is no longer useful. Needn’t to say that by the time we get home, that plastic bag will either end up in the recycling bin or added up to a growing pile of petroleum jelly. Governments are more sensitized about the negative impact of plastic on the planet’s health since many studies are now showing real evidence. Lets not forget that the battle with plastic bags started many years ago. In fact, between 2007 and 2010, with the help of retailers adhering to a code of conduct, the city of Québec was able to reduce the consumption of single use bags by 52%. If we take the successful example of Brooklyn and Portland, it seems like the only way to achieve 100% is to entirely prohibit their usage.

what are the alternatives?

In an ideal world, no bag is the right bag. Although, this is only possible when you have one or two items which are carryable by hand and that’s rarely the case.In the real world, here are the best options currently available :

1- Heavy plastic reusable bags

These are the bags that became popular once groceries started charging for soft plastics bags. I believe we’ve all accumulated one too many by either getting them for free or forgetting our initial one at home. Nonetheless, they are currently one the best alternatives out there because of their higher rate of recyclability and a longer life cycle. Although, it’s important to note that they are still resource-intensive meaning that they need to be used at least 4 times to be considered more sustainable. Personally, I don’t think that’s an issue since most of them are generally durable and serve a good purpose. Some factors to consider when purchasing a new bag are

– To make sure that it’s made from recycled materials AND is recyclable,

– That it’s composed from only one material (otherwise it’s harder to recycle)

– That it was made locally to reduce gas emitted during transportation

2- Fabric reusable bags

Fabric bags are pretty convenient since you can easily fold them, wash them once dirty and repair them if they break. If maintained adequately, these bags should last a long time. I personally purchased small ones for bread, fruits and vegetables which I find very practical for grocery shopping. The only downside would be that the majority of fabric bags are made with cotton, a fiber that has highly negative impacts on the environment. The solution would be to choose organic cotton or another eco-friendly fabric that doesn’t require a large amount of water and pesticides during production.

Related post: Killing me softly – the impact of cotton

3- Paper bags

Studies have shown that paper bags even though easily recyclable, compostable and biodegradable, come last in the hierarchy of eco-friendly alternatives. The resources used in the process of transformation and the impact of deforestation are far too intensive to be balanced out by recycling. Due to their nature, paper bags also lack durability, therefore are not the best option for groceries. This being said, they should be considered as a last resort.  

4- Backpack  

What I mean by backpack, is by bringing one’s own backpack for shopping. It is not an alternative that your local shop could or should even offer, but it’s an option that we as consumers can take into consideration. I own an Osprey 32L that I purchased for travelling – which happens about only once or twice a year. Instead of leaving it to linger in the closest the rest of the year, I chose to give it another purpose by taking it grocery shopping with me (he really likes it). It works really well for me and gives me leverage to carry two extra bags on each arm.   

customer vs retailer

So whose responsibility is it anyway? When a big change like this one is implemented, our first reaction might be on the defense. I can understand because change can put us out of our comfort zone and require a modification with habits. Nevertheless, I believe that if we all work hand in hand towards the same direction, we can avoid the bumpy road. Retailers have the power to research and offer the right alternatives for a smooth transition, while it’s the consumer’s responsibility to put a conscious effort into making better decisions for a greener planet. Sometimes it is when we run out of options and hit rock bottom that we let our inner artist release. Who knows, maybe this ban could trigger the development of greener technologies. Single-use items are without a doubt an environmental disaster that has established a nest within our traditions. Banning plastic bags is the first step for a culture change leaning towards sustainable habits. Who knows, maybe the next step will be to prohibit the use of disposable coffee cups.