Vancouver resident Samantha Smart has made buying reusable bags something of a habit.
“I buy them pretty often because I feel bad about plastic bags. But then I’ll buy one, take one home, put it somewhere and never find it again,” the 22-year-old said.
“I think it's like something that I don't think about until I'm already at the grocery store, and then I end up buying another reusable bag and losing it or forgetting it. And it's like a never-ending cycle of doing that.”
A year from now, however, this habit could prove much more expensive, courtesy of a newly approved Vancouver bylaw that’s part of the city’s goal to achieve zero-waste status by 2040.
And it also demonstrates the difficulties in cracking down on single-use plastics: Plastic-bag bans may not work as well as cities hope.
Starting Jan. 1, 2021, Vancouver will ban the use of plastic shopping bags and phase in levies on the use of paper and reusable bags. Businesses will have to charge a minimum fee of 15 cents for each paper bag used, with the fee for reusable bags starting at $1. The minimum fees would then increase, respectively, to 25 cents and $2 in 2022.
“We have heard loud and clear that reducing waste from single-use items is important to residents and that bold action is needed,” Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said of the change. The city estimates that currently around two million plastic shopping bags end up in the garbage each week in Vancouver.
But the waste-reduction promised by reusable bags only holds true if consumers actually use them continually as intended. A recent report published by two non-governmental organizations suggests that there’s a significant number of people with a growing collection of reusable bags.
The report, jointly produced by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace, looked at sales of reusable “bags for life” in supermarkets across Britain. It found that in 2019 alone, the top 10 British grocery stores sold 1.5 billion of these reusable bags, which is approximately equivalent to each household in the country purchasing 54 of them throughout the year.
“It is clear from this data that many people are simply swapping ‘single-use’ plastic bags for these plastic bags for ‘life,’" the report says.
Katherine White, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said more work will likely be needed to change people’s habits.
“So when they’re switching to the reusable bags, they’re cheap enough that people don’t mind re-buying them every time.”
Prof. White says some ways in which businesses could combat this is by making reusable items higher quality and more socially desirable, or by offering rewards that provide incentives for their use until consumers form the habit.
To make matters even more challenging, the California experience shows that single-use bans might not significantly reduce total plastic usage, because consumers will merely find substitutes. In other words, since people regularly repurpose plastic grocery bags to, for example, line trash bins or pick up dog poop, they simply buy trash bags when bans take effect.
Between 2007 and 2015, 139 cities and counties in California imposed bans on single-use plastic bags, according to University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor. This eventually led the state to institute the first statewide plastic-bag ban in the United States, which was approved via referendum on Nov. 8, 2016.
Ms. Taylor’s research shows that 30 per cent of the plastic use eliminated by the state’s single-use bag ban was actually offset by significant increases in the sales of trash bags, which are also thicker and therefore involve more plastic for every unit. She also found that the sales of four-gallon plastic trash bags jumped by 120 per cent in the months after California’s single-use bag ban became law.
Monica Kosmak, senior project manager for the city of Vancouver’s zero-waste strategy, says that local authorities are aware that two-thirds of the plastic bags that end up in Vancouver landfills are being reused as garbage bags.
Ms. Kosmak also said the city understands that harmonizing environmental regulations across different municipalities is important for the business community. This is why Vancouver City Council, she said, sent a letter to the provincial government requesting a comprehensive and provincewide single-use reduction strategy.
“As a city, we can’t do it alone. And we recognize this. It’s important to have this change happen at the broadest scale possible,” Ms. Kosmak said.