Nature Wise Columnist Bob Handfield

Nature Wise: Mr. Plastic Bag goes on trial

An alleged felon, declared public enemy number one by certain environmental groups, is facing trials in multiple venues.

He has already been convicted in Montreal, Victoria and Fort McMurray amongst other locations. Other localities are deciding whether to put him on trial. We are speaking about Mr. Plastic Bag (aka Mr. PB).

The prosecution charges him with many environmental crimes — visual blight on the landscape, choking our waterways, contaminating our oceans and filling our landfills and contributing to greenhouse gases amongst other things. The prosecution argues that paper bags or reusable cotton totes are much less damaging to our ecosystems. His defenders dispute these facts.

Let’s have a look at the facts?

There is no question that plastic items in general contribute to visual pollution along our highways — just have a look at the number of fast-food containers and drink cups that can be found along almost any major highway and are posing significant problems in the world’s oceans. But generally plastic bags are a very small percentage of these items along a highway except in places like Arizona. There is no question that plastic bags there contribute to pollution on a far greater scale than in B.C. but to me, that says that recycling in B.C. works. Arizona does not have a plastic bag recycle program. B.C. does!

Statistics Canada says that less than half of one per cent of material going into our landfills are plastic bags. So if we are worried about filling up our landfills, there are lots of other materials to tackle first.

Mr. PB is accused of is being “single-use” but there is considerable evidence to suggest that most plastic bags are used twice. At our house we use them to pick up our dog’s droppings; we line our smaller trash cans with them and generally use them twice. On our recent trip to the U.S. we found that Walmart U.S. is now using plastic bags that they claim can be hand washed and used 125 times.

Many environmental groups want to ban Mr. PB and substitute cotton tote bags which can be used many times over. But the environmental impacts of growing and using cotton are huge. Cotton is one of the worst crops for use of herbicides and pesticides. Although only 2.6 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is devoted to growing cotton, it accounts for between 15 and 20 per cent of the world use of pesticides and about 12 per cent of the world’s herbicides. The U.S. EPA says that seven of the 15 most carcinogenic chemicals known are used in growing cotton. The run-off from cotton fields is highly toxic and contributes substantially to the world’s water woes.

As for contributing to greenhouse gases, the prosecution has it all wrong. A study by the United Kingdom Environment Agency found that you have to use a cotton bag about 300 times (once a week for nearly six years) to achieve the same small carbon footprint produced by using a plastic bag twice. Tote bags are sold so cheaply or given away at so many stores that every household has multiple bags. Today I counted 11 tote bags in our house — some never used more than once.

So what about paper bags? Paper at least is from a renewable resource (trees or other plant material) but paper bags require significantly more energy to produce and transport than plastic bags so their carbon footprint is significant. Like plastic, paper bags can be recycled.

None of this is an argument in favour of plastic packaging in general — heaven knows we need to drastically reduce the amount of plastic used in the world but plastic bags strike me as a minor part of the problem.

It also shows that there are no simple solutions to many man-made environmental problems — and banning plastic bags might fix one problem while causing several others.

Bob Handfield is president of The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the club. The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club’s monthly meetings take place on the fourth Thursday of each month. Get all the details about our meetings and other activities at

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