Photo: Are plastic bags really necessary?

A national newspaper columnist wrote that "banning plastic bags will do exactly nothing to save the planet", but plastic bags pose a big problem that must be addressed. (Credit: Nom & Malc via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington

A national newspaper columnist wrote that "banning plastic bags will do exactly nothing to save the planet." She went on to argue that they're even environmentally friendly. Outright bans may not be the best solution, but plastic bags pose a big problem that must be addressed. The columnist appeared to be more interested in contrarianism for its own sake than in acknowledging the environmental harm these products cause.

Plastic bags are bad and for the most part unnecessary. Many of us older folks remember a time, only a few decades ago, when we didn't have them. Sure, they're convenient, but is that an excuse to damage the environment and the life it supports?

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A University of British Columbia study found that 93 per cent of beached northern fulmars (migratory seabirds related to the albatross) had bellies full of plastic — a substantial increase from the last time they were tested, in 1980. Head researcher Stephanie Avery-Gomm told the Globe and Mail that one bird had 454 pieces of plastic in its stomach. Eating plastic can severely harm or kill birds, as well as the 260 other marine species, including turtles and fish, that we know eat or get entangled in the stuff.

It's not just bags, of course. We humans have become dependent on plastic for a range of uses, from packaging to products. Reducing our use of plastic bags is an easy place to start getting our addiction under control.

Canadians use between nine- and 15-billion plastic bags a year, enough to circle the Earth more than 55 times, according to the Greener Footprints website. (U.S. citizens use about 100 billion a year!) Few plastic bags are recycled. Most are used for a short time to carry groceries, and then maybe re-used as garbage bags or to wrap dog poop before ending up in the landfill or the ocean. Some people argue that, because they make up about one per cent of the volume of waste in landfills, we shouldn't worry. But one per cent of the massive amounts of what's in landfills is a lot, especially since plastic doesn't biodegrade.

Because they're lightweight, plastic bags are easily carried by wind and water. Besides accumulating in the ocean, they litter our streets and natural areas, often clogging drainage systems and contributing to flooding. They take at least 1,000 years to break down, and even then, they don't biodegrade; rather, they fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, making them more likely to be eaten by marine and land animals.

Plastic is also a petroleum product, so continued and increasing use of it accelerates the depletion of valuable fossil fuels. According to Greener Footprint, 8.7 plastic shopping bags contain enough embodied petroleum energy to drive a car one kilometre.

Finding something to carry your groceries in is easy; inexpensive re-usable bags come in a variety of materials and sizes. Many are small and light and can be carried in a purse or daypack. I carry one in my back pocket and have refused dozens of plastic bags as a result. Some people worry about bacteria and other contaminants that may accumulate in the bags, but you just need to wash them regularly.

One of the bigger issues is what to put garbage in. Before the 1980s, no one used plastic bags for groceries or garbage, nor did we have composting or recycling programs, so we know that plastic garbage bags aren't entirely necessary. The first step is to reduce the amount of garbage we produce. In fact, there's really no such thing as garbage. It's all resources, so we should more accurately refer to it as "waste".

Buying products with less packaging and reducing overall consumption of unnecessary goods is a start. Re-using, recycling, and composting also help you cut down what you send to the landfill. For the unavoidable waste, and the dog poop, use bio-compostable bags.

Outright bans on plastic bags may not be the best solution, but education and incentives to get people to stop using them are necessary. If we have any hope of finding ways for seven billion people to live well on planet with finite resources, we have to learn to use our resources efficiently. Plastic bags are neither efficient nor environmentally friendly.

For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and online.

August 2, 2012

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Mar 23, 2017
3:33 PM

Every grocery store should have to take back all packaging that leaves their stores.

Mar 23, 2017
3:31 PM

I think every municipality of sufficient size should have to recycle the cardboard boxes and other cardboard items in their community into paper bags at a facility in their own community.
The charging of five cents for each plastic bag does not deter the purchase of them and serves to line the pockets of those who sell them. A charge of ten to even twenty-five cents per paper bag would produce the market for a paper bag making plant in each community. As this would necessitate the building of these plants and full time employment after the governments should cough up some money. As of now the cardboard is being trucked all over the place no less than those empty beer cans which are shipped uncrushed all over the country. I suppose the trucking jobs and grocery/big box stores’ profits rule in a democracy where the politicians cater to the unions and the rich. In BC a person with $500,000.00 in assets can get welfare. Now the Liberals take away subsidized transit for the poor so they can afford to give corporations tax cuts. They are no better than the Conservatives. Democracy is most obviously a failure to future generations.

Nov 18, 2015
6:39 AM

Check with your grocers and retail stores. If they’re not already recycling the bags they supply you with, let them know that they need to start providing such a service. If they are already recycling the bags they give out, support their efforts by buying the types of products that their bags are recycled into. Plastic bags can be recycled into things like more plastic bags, lumber, siding, drain pipes, and flower pots.


May 14, 2015
4:44 AM

I can’t believe that there are people who believe that plastic bags do not harm the environment. Of course they are harmful. I think that it is our duty to protect the planet, our home, the place where we live! Tara Morgan

Dec 08, 2014
7:09 AM

Well think of the waste in the use of garbage bags we use way to much and now it shows in the ocean that’s are fault we humans are killing are selves and now we may die from to much garbage or no trees from the pollution in and from the factory’s and power plants basically were killing are selves.

Sep 28, 2014
7:37 PM

I’m not sure what to think on this issue. I don’t use plastic bags, but apparently plastic bag bans results in garbage bag sale increases because people like to line their small bins with plastic for some reason. People also use paper bags which is an environmental disaster of its own. I also can’t help but wonder if the need for transportation would increase because not only would garbage bag sales increase significantly, but they would also have to transport paper bags. I’m going to continue to not line my small garbage bins, and I’m not going to use plastic grocery bags, bulk bags, or produce bags, but I’m unsure if I would ever support a plastic bag ban.

Apr 19, 2014
4:49 AM

Thanx for the worderful post your blog is really very informative and interesting.

Aug 09, 2012
7:41 AM

I travel often between Burundi and Rwanda. Sometimes I find the border inspections when enterring Rwanda tedious, especially when I realize I accidently have a contraband plastic bag in my luggage. However, even though I may strongly disagree with the Rwandan government on other issues, I really respect their plastic bag ban. Plastic bags are ubiquitous on roads, sidewalks, and ditches in many urban regions in the other countries in the East Africa community. Since the ban Rwandan merchants have found many other solutions. Supermarkets stock reusable cloth bags, and paper bags. Women take baskets to market as they have for years and years. Bread is wrapped in wax paper rather than placed in plastic bags. Peanuts that are sold in plastic in Burundi are sold in rolled recycled office paper in neighbouring Rwanda. Looking out my window here in Burundi, I quickly spot many plastic bags littering the banana grove and bean field between my apartment building and the next building, which is not something one sees in Rwanda anymore. While the switch in Rwanda required some adjustment by everyone, the results are visible. If Rwanda can very successfully make the transition, I'm confident that municipalities, provinces, or even all of Canada, could undertake such a change as well.

Aug 05, 2012
8:21 AM

When I was a child there were not plastic bags. The garbage consisted of food scraps wrapped in yesterday's newpapers, which desintegrated very fast upon arriving to the dump! Now with this proliferation of plastic everywhere, I can see the earth suffocating…

Aug 04, 2012
6:52 AM

Not to mention the billions of plastic bags of soiled clumping cat litter we're all using to clean cat litter boxes and moulded plastic packaging manufacturers are using to ship their products to retailers for sale that are ending up in our landfills! What to do, what to do??? We keep saying we have a problem but what are we going to do about it? Any suggestions to go with these observations? Thank you for the reminder but I can't even remember what we did before clumping clay cat litter and I have converted to reusable cloth bags for shopping. Moulded plastic packaging is not even being properly identified and MOE and WDO don't seem to be doing anything about these manufacturers?

Aug 03, 2012
8:52 PM

I live in Huntsville,Ontario and I would like to tell a story that happened to me a couple of days ago. I was at a grocery store picking up a few things. The cashier being a young girl, probably a high school student working for the summer, was approached by a gentleman who was in another lane. " I think your policy on grocery bags is f#$^n stupid" the man said. I will tell you that by the way he was dressed he looked like what we here call an cityiot ( tourists who have more money than brains). The polite girl replied "that's the policy sir". 5 cents for a bag not bad I think. "Well what are we going to save a few whales" he said. She replied " Everybody has their own opinion and if you disagree with it Feel free to bring bags in next time" . I happened to finish at the same time and watched this man with his 2 bags( 10 cents) walk with his cart to a nice new Escalade and leave. Great job girl.. I am glad that her generation gets it and I wish that this gentleman, who was around 60 by my guess, got it just a little. He is the kind of person who makes this fight so hard. Go David go.

Aug 03, 2012
5:31 PM

Some good points, but beware of your local municipalities rules and preferences regarding organic materials and plastics. For example, in the City of Toronto bags are removed as part of the disposal of organic waste, and then the plastic bags are sent to landfills. When compostable bags go to landfill they often don't break down. At one point the City of Toronto was asking residents not to use biocompostable bags for organic garbage because they were causing problems with the machinery which removed them from the organic materials — I'm not sure if this is still the case.

Aug 03, 2012
10:42 AM

We used to need plastic bags to line our garbange. Now that we try to recycle ALL organic waste with the green bin composting program, ideally there's no need to line the garbage bins with plastic bags since nothing will leak or stink. Most of our 'garbage' is packaging that cannot be recycled — e.g. styrofoam and plastic wrappings. If we can reduce that, there's hardly any garbage left.

Aug 03, 2012
9:41 AM

Better buy stock in "bio-compostable bags", (or even Glad Kitchen-Catchers) because the millions of tenants

Aug 03, 2012
9:28 AM

Thank you for writing something on this topic. I agree with a plastic bag ban in TO, many people, including the media were not seeing the bigger picture, and were very negative to the idea. I was constantly posting information about plastic bags, how they are made, what their impact on the environment is , and how other cities and countries around the world have already banned plastic bags. Margret Wente's article in the Globe was very disheartening and you addressed it perfectly for what it was. "The columnist appeared to be more interested in contrarianism for its own sake than in acknowledging the environmental harm these products cause." Thanks Again Randal Gordy Lee

Aug 03, 2012
9:16 AM

plastic bags can also be reused many times before they become waste but why not also recycle them when they are no longer reusable. There are a lot of things that can be made from recycled plastics. It is unfortunate that recycled products are usually more expensive to buy at the moment but surely there are ways to reduce the cost of manufacturing recycled plastic products which will make it more viable to pass the saving on to consumers.

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