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Greenings: Understanding the consequences of a dispensed bag fee

August 9th, 2012 · No Comments

What the industry doesn’t tell you is that plastic doesn’t get recycled very well.

By Terri Chu

An attempt by Toronto city council to dispense with the 5-cent fee on plastic bags has instead resulted in the outright ban of the bags.

Whether or not this will result in environmental gain is unclear, because sudden transitions are always rife with unintended consequences.  That said, it’s likely a better decision than simply scrapping the fee.

The recycling industry says that the decision was poorly thought out, and it’s tough to argue the point when the spontaneous nature of the decision is considered: Councillor David Shiner, who proposed the ban, told the Toronto Star he “came into the [council] meeting without the expectation to do that.“

The industry has emphasized the inconvenience consumers will face and the effect it will have on the economy. If people can’t carry their goods home in stable, reusable bags, they’ll stop making large purchases, which will in turn lead to less profit for retailers.

But what the industry doesn’t tell you is that plastic doesn’t get recycled very well. The best we can really do is “down-cycle”:  using the plastic we discard in a lower-quality product.

Coke bottles, for example, aren’t recycled into more coke bottles.  They go through a treatment process that pollutes the land and water and get a new lease on life as a cheap polyester sweater.  Meanwhile, anything living downstream from the treatment facility suffers from the pollutants created during processing.

As an enthusiastic supporter of the 5-cent fee, I’m also not against scrapping bags altogether, although I do worry that doing so too rapidly could have secondary effects. Will people start treating nylon bags (which use more resources to produce) as disposable in lieu of plastic?

And for all the noise that our politicians are making over the five cent fee, it’s little more than a blip on most peoples’ radars.

The more important things: reducing energy consumption, replacing cars with public transit and bicycles, and building walkable communities, seem to have been lost in the noise of trivialities.

Making lots of noise for minute environmental issues seems to help take our minds off the real problems that five cent fees won’t resolve.

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