“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
—Richard P. Feynman
Last week, the City of Toronto proved itself worthy of its old nickname “Toronto the Good.” That description was first coined by the city’s 25th mayor, William Holmes Howland. While running his election campaign—he was mayor from 1886 to 1887—he praised the citizens of Toronto for their strong Victorian morals they had at the time, no doubt in the hopes of gaining some votes. Whatever the city’s moral state might be today, it again proved itself to be Toronto the Good when it became Canada’s first major city to ban single-use plastic bags, scheduled to take effect January 1, 2013.
It’s funny how it came about, because the city was planning to enforce a five-cent surcharge on all plastic bags, and the current mayor Rob Ford wanted no part of it. In his efforts to do away with the planned surcharge, city councillors deliberated and ended up agreeing with Mayor Ford, removing the planned surcharge. But then they did something nobody expected and went even further, placing a ban on plastic bags altogether.
Removing plastic bags is not new elsewhere in the world. For example, Rwanda—a country not normally thought of for being particularly progressive— eliminated them back in 2006. Bangladesh did away with them after major floods the nation was experiencing were attributed to plastic bags plugging up the country’s sewers. Other countries that have either restricted or banned plastic bags include Italy and Ireland. Cities that have made the move to ban plastic bags include New Delhi, San Francisco (the first major city in the US to do so), Oakland, Seattle and Los Angeles, as well as regions in the U.K. and Australia.
The modern version of the plastic grocery bag was invented by a Swedish engineer, Sten Gustaf Thulin. They’re made out of polyethylene which is derived from petroleum. Polyethylene—first synthesized in 1898 in Germany—is the world’s most common plastic and it’s estimated that 80 million tonnes of the stuff is manufactured each year, primarily for packaging. Thulin’s design using a process known as blown film extrusion was developed nearly a half-century ago, and was patented in 1965 by Celloplast, the Swedish company Thulin worked for. It wasn’t until 1977 that Celloplast’s monopoly came to an end when Mobil (now part of Exxon Mobil) was able to overturn the US patent. It took very little time after that for plastic bags to become the standard for transporting our groceries, rather than continuing to use the older paper bags that had been used previously.
Some people argue that the amount of oil used to make a plastic bag is barely a drop and rather insignificant compared with the oil we use for other purposes. But it’s not the amount of oil per bag that is concerning, it’s the sheer volume of bags manufactured that’s the problem. In 2008 it was estimated that the US was going through 380 billion plastic bags a year, consuming 1.6 billion gallons of oil for their manufacture.
The very thing that made plastic bags so useful in the marketplace—that they are lightweight and not easily degradable—has led to a number of environmental concerns. On land plastic bags tend to be the number one source of litter. According to Environment Canada, each Canadian uses about 350 plastic bags a year. For generally only a few minutes at a time. And then we throw them away where they linger for hundreds of years in landfill sites.
Sometimes plastic bags make their way into the ocean where currents can carry them thousands of miles. A natural destination for many of them to end up in the Pacific Ocean is known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a region twice the size of Texas and about 30 metres deep. This is where so much of our world’s plastic garbage winds up.
The amount of harm these bags do in the ocean is substantial. In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US reported that 61 percent of marine turtles were killed by plastic bags, supported by a similar Australian study in 2007 that came to the same conclusion in their part of the world.
Recycling would help if we did it, but the recycling rate for plastic bags tends to be around one percent, not enough to help the problem very much. Burning them isn’t the answer either because a lot of toxins and carcinogens are released as a result. There is a degradable version of polyethylene but that still doesn’t degrade as well as it should, and it can’t be mixed with the non-degradable plastic bags in plastic recycling systems. Bioplastics which are vegetable-based are another option, but not very commonly used.
It would seem the best solution at present is to ban plastic bags outright. So I look forward to Toronto’s ban coming into effect next January. And despite the fact that this isn’t what Mayor Ford was after when he tried to put a stop to the surcharge, he ended up doing some good when his city councillors voted in favour of the ban.
I only hope other municipalities will soon follow Toronto’s lead.