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Plastic lobby tells a big whopper, continues to smear paper bags

As whoppers go, this is a big one. The plastics lobby wants you to believe that only 7% of plastic shopping bags are thrown away in Montreal: “ZERO WASTE – CLOSE TO IT,” it proudly claims. Zero Waste - NoWhat a stretch! 

The claim is blatantly misleading and dishonest. What the plastics lobby has done is combine a re-use estimate with a recycling estimate to come up with an impressive 93% total. The problem is that almost two-thirds of that total is bags re-used for household garbage or pet waste. Yes, bags that will shortly be in the dump or roaming the streets as litter.

To claim that “only 7% of the bags (in Montreal) are thrown away” and that “bag waste management is very close to zero waste” when in fact almost 70% of them end up in landfill, is blatantly misleading. This claim shifts all of the environmental burden off of shopping bags and onto garbage bags.

It is also false accounting. Think of all those used corrugated boxes in your garage or basement holding stuff they didn’t deliver in the first place. Are we going to count them as “re-use” now, as the plastics folks are doing, so that we can claim that virtually no corrugated boxes go to landfill? In fact, if we did what the plastics people are doing for bags and added the re-use number for corrugated to the recycling number for corrugated in Ontario households (98%), poof, we’d be over 100% easily! Yeah baby, we’re even better than zero waste!

The recycled percentage is also questionable. It’s for plastic bags collected, not actually recycled. Ask the operator of a material recovery facility (MRF) how many plastic bags have to be removed from their machinery and sent to landfill, or a paper recycling mill how much plastic film ends up as residue and has to be dumped at their expense, and you’ll start to get more accurate numbers.

And, of course, facing bans on bags in various cities, the plastics industry can’t resist having a go at plastic alternatives such as reusable bags and paper bags. It’s been doing this for a while, mainly through a website that’s rather ironically called “all about bags.” Well, not quite all about bags. Its special section on litter somehow neglects to mention the fact that bags end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans.

majorholesAnd it gives an entirely false impression of paper bag production and environmental performance in Canada. We have previously pointed out one dirty lie and several factual errors on this site. There are also some major holes in the waste management comparison it tries to make. For starters, a typical paper bag carries more goods than a plastic bag (a fact recognised by life cycle experts). So you can’t crunch numbers based on the assumption that one paper bag will replace just one plastic bag. It’s more than that. And this, of course, changes any calculations of greenhouse gas impact.

Nor can you assume that all banned plastic bags will be replaced by paper bags. In reality, bans on plastic bags seem to achieve major reductions in plastic bag usage (straight reduction) and a significant increase in reusable bags. We don’t see new paper bag mills springing up everywhere!

In the same vein, the net cost of recycling plastic film in the recycling system is more than six times the cost of recycling paper bags in a corrugated bale. So there are huge avoided costs (savings) that have to be taken into account when plastic bags are replaced.

And then there’s the so-called life cycle studies (LCAs) that the plastics industry loves to promote. As we have pointed out before, most of these are old; of varying quality and relevance; and perhaps most significantly, incorporate no actual data on paper and plastic bag production in Canada. Assumptions and conclusions based on studies of how French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Malaysian, and Chinese paper and plastic bags were made up to 20 years ago, are of little value to us in Canada today!

The high amount of sawmill residues and renewable energy (carbon-neutral biomass) that are used to make bag material in Canada are not taken into account in the life cycle studies being promoted by the plastic folks. So making claims that solid waste management costs in Montreal and elsewhere will skyrocket and greenhouse gas emissions soar if plastic bags are replaced by paper bags, are spurious, to say the least.

Until these key paper production issues (the use of sawmill residues and renewable energy) and the impact of marine litter are factored into LCAs, we are not, however, going to claim that paper bags are “environmentally friendlier” (a phrase the Competitions Bureau cautions against using anyway). But we will continue to point out the false claims, the misrepresentations, and yes the big whoppers made by our less principled competitors.

 

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John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Comments

  1. John,

    All I can say is WOW and a hope that you continue to expose these outright falsehoods. But, I expect that the plastics industry will just try to write off your comments because you are a shill for the evil paper industry. Now, if only I could use such creative number-smithing on my company accounts so I would never have to pay income tax again.

    The whole issue of plastic bags has been around for decades. Back in the late 1980’s, I was doing a job in Pakistan. I recall watching Sun TV out of Hong Kong and remember a series of ads about plastic bag litter. There were many shots of the problem but the one that stands out in my mind was of a tree covered in plastic bags blowing in the wind.

    By the way, are you aware that France has now become the first country in the world to passed a law banning plastic cups and plates unless they are made from bioplastics effective 2020 and this is addition to banning plastic shopping bags – http://www.industrytap.com/france-becomes-first-country-ban-plastic-cups-plates-aid-battle-climate-change/38694 Here we are trying to do it from city to city when an entire country has already done it.

    Keep up the good work,

    Bob

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