Be Informed

Being bagSmart- Things to Consider

Environmental Impact

Bag policy discussions need to take into account how people use bags and their necessity. Those who like to think that the bags are only single use; that the bags are used only as carry bags, and are not reused at all, do not understand that the bags are essential to daily life. The result is that they ignore the unintended consequences of changes in bag policy – changes that can harm the environment, the economy and have social impacts as well.

So how do people use bags in their daily lives? On the numbers side, 93% of all plastic bags distributed in Montreal are reused or recycled (60% of the bags reused & 33% recycled).

A May 2015 CROP Poll analyzing Montrealers usage patterns shows that 87% of Montrealers reuse their plastic shopping bags for multiple reuses – 32% reuse them as lunch bags, 15% to pick up after pets, 78% to manage household waste.

What will Montrealers substitute to manage their household waste if thin plastic shopping bags are not available? Reusables are single purpose and not reused for waste. Paper bags tear easily and are water intolerant. Montrealers will be forced to substitute thicker plastic kitchen catchers to manage waste. These bags contain 74% more plastic, This will result in a 32% increase in the amount of plastic in the waste stream – “hardly a win for the environment”.

Or worse, they will reuse the proposed 50 micron bag which contains 200% more plastic than the current 17 micron plastic shopping bag.


Plastic shopping bags are a fraction of Montreal’s waste stream at 0.27% and are a tiny portion of litter at 1%. They perform well on the 3R’s. It is on reduction in the number of bags distributed where there has been the greatest gains in Montreal and Quebec.

The number of thin plastic shopping bags distributed in Quebec shrank by 52% (Quebec MOE) during to the 2008-2010 Province’s Public Education and Voluntary Bag Reduction Program; achieving its goal three years ahead of time.

Reduction of non-essential bags continues with the bag industry and retailers working hard to reduce distribution of non-essential bags using public education and 3R’s product stewardship strategies. The RCC reports a 76% reduction in the number of bags distributed in Quebec by grocery stores.

Retailers in Montreal and Quebec run aggressive ongoing instore public education programs like: “do-you-need-a-bag’, better bagging, parking lot remember your bag reminders, reusable bags for sale, and some charge fees. The plastics industry continues to invest heavily in recycling technologies, the manufacture of new green products made from recycled plastic bags, and routinely integrates recycled content into plastic bags.2'width=

Be bagSmart


It comes down to consumer behavior – how people use bags. The biggest fallacy underpinning calls for bag bans is that thin plastic bags are single use – used for 20 minutes as a carry bag and then tossed into the garbage. According to ban proponents, the bags are not reused. This is WRONG.

Data shows that 60% of bags are reused two or more times in Montreal – for a wide variety of purposes – as lunch bags, for storage, as book bags, to manage household and pet waste.

A May 2015 CROP Poll analyzing Montrealers usage patterns shows that 87% of Montrealers reuse their plastic shopping bags for multiple reuses – 32% reuse them as lunch bags, 15% to pick up after pets, 78% to manage household waste.1'width=


The bag recycling rate in Montreal is very high at 33%-35% for all bags distributed. Montreal has a state-of-the-art recycling system and new Material Recovery Facilities (MRF’s) are planned. The industry pays for 100% of bag recycling in the City of Montreal which underscores their commitment to environmental stewardship.

Industry has invested in advanced research in innovative recycling technologies that enable plastic shopping bags to be recycled and remanufactured into practical green products like outdoor furniture, office and garden supplies, water pipes, plastic lumber for flooring and decking, This is a major step forward in the circular economy where nothing is wasted and resources like plastic shopping bags are reused and at the end of their useful life are recycled and remanufactured into a new green product.3'width=

This circular economy represents a $2 billion a year industry in North America. Quebec-based Gaudreau Environmental has jumped on it recycling plastic shopping bags and wine bottles into pavers superior in performance to concrete. One square foot of pavers contains 600 recycled plastic shopping bags, and 12 wine bottles.4'width=


The usual candidates to replace plastic shopping bags are reusables and paper. Because both have greater mass and weigh much more, they have a greater impact on the environment – they consume more resources and generate a lot more waste. Plastic shopping bags weigh 7-8 grams; reusable bags weigh 93-110 grams; and Kraft paper grocery bags weigh 55 grams. This means that substitution of paper for plastic bags will generate 7 times more waste and 7 times more greenhouse gases.


That is why Taiwan in 2006 rescinded a bag ban on plastic shopping bags in its food sector because it generated a “mountain’ of waste and greenhouse gas emissions soared.

The impacts from the substitutes mean more waste and greater impacts on the waste stream not to mention greater global warming and climate change impacts:

Paper Bags as the Alternative

Every scientific study – Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – shows that plastic shopping bags are the better environmental choice and have a lower carbon footprint. The EcoBilan Carrefour LCA shows that in their manufacture, paper bags consume 2.2 times more non-renewable energy; 4.7 times more water, and they emit 3.1 times more greenhouse gases and 2.7 times more acid gases. And reuse of paper grocery bags is almost non-existent because they tear easily and are water intolerant.10'width=

Reusable Bags as the Alternative

Reusables are popular; 58% of Montrealers use them (CROP Poll May 2015), but reusables are not recyclable in Quebec which means that thousands of tonnes of plastic will end up in Montreal’s landfill at the end of their useful life. They are also single purpose bags and cannot be reused to manage waste so a ban will not eliminate the need for plastic bags to manage waste. People will be forced to buy other bags

And reusable bags require more resources to produce and have a greater global warming impact than a plastic shopping bag used just once. For example, a cotton reusable bag has to be reused 131 times to match the positive environmental performance of a thin plastic shopping bag used just once. (U.K. Environment Agency Evidence Life Cycle Assessment of supermarket carrier bags


Global Warming Potential – The Science

In addition to being, 100% recyclable, all scientific studies – Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) – show that plastic shopping bags are one of the best bag options environmentally.

One of the most extensive studies is an environmental life cycle comparison done in 2011 by the U.K. Government Environment Agency which moved beyond paper and plastic to include a range of reusable bags. This study found that compared to all other bags on the market, the thin plastic shopping bag, used only once, had a lower carbon footprint — out-performed all alternatives used multiple times on environmental performance. It had a lower global warming potential (GWP).

The long-life bags have to be reused many times to match the environmental performance of a plastic shopping bag used just once.

(U.K. Environment Agency Evidence Life Cycle Assessment of supermarket carrier bags

Number of Times Alternatives have to be used to Match the Environmental Performance of the Conventional Plastic Bag Particularly if Used Just Once

Type of Carrier Bag HDPE Bag
(No Secondary Reuse)
(40.3% reused as kitchen catchers)
(100% reused as kitchen catchers)
(reused 3 times)
Plastic Bag 1 times 2 times 2 times 3 times
Paper Bag 3 times 4 times 7 times 9 times
LDPE Bag 4 times 5 times 9 times 12 times
Non-woven PP Bag 11 times 14 times 26 times 33 times
Cotton Bag 131 times 173 times 327 times 393 times

Economic Impact of Changes in Bag Policy in Montreal

There are no winners economically if bags are banned.

For bag manufacturers, it is closures and job losses. For residents, it means higher food costs as much as $30-35 million dollars because of the proposed thicker 50 micron grocery bag and it will cost more to manage household waste as a much as a 140% increase (a plastic shopping bag costs 5 cents; a kitchen catcher 12 cents on average). For fashion retailers who are already struggling due to increased online competition, it means higher costs for bags. For grocers who would have to re-engineer their checkout lines with a switch to paper bags, the costs would be enormous. And for corner convenience stores, a ban is crippling because 85% of their business is based on impulse purchases.

Even proposed alternatives seen by policy makers as “opportunities’ can pose serious financial and technology challenges for the industry to adapt. The reality is it may be more economically viable to import alternative bags from overseas than to invest millions locally in new equipment.

3R’s versus Bans – What Works Better on Source Reduction?

Bans and the 3R’s are entirely different approaches to reducing the number of bags in distribution. This pits top-down edicts against the individual’s product stewardship responsibility to do the right thing for the environment.

Bans blame the product, declaring it harmful instead of focusing on consumer behaviour and individual consumer responsibility for the products purchased. Bag bans are based on a false assumption that plastic shopping bags are single-use and used only as a carry bag. There is no reuse at all. They do not recognize that bags are a necessity.

The 3R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – is the foundation to environmentally-responsible consumer behaviour. It focuses on how people use bags in daily life and their necessity. The 3R’s teaches people how to be good product stewards, and make environmentally responsible choices.

What Has Worked Best in Quebec and Canada?

Bans eliminate the bag, but do not eliminate the need for the bag. Reusables do not eliminate the need for bags to manage household waste.. Bag bans do not eliminate plastic from the waste stream, but lead to more waste – a 32% increase in plastic. Why? Because 78% of Montrealers reuse their plastic bags to manage household waste (Crop Poll May 2015). So all a bag ban will do is force people who have to manage their household waste to substitute a thicker bag like plastic kitchen catchers which contain 74% more plastic. This is not a positive source reduction strategy. And a 200% increase in plastic with a mandated 50 micron bag will only make the situation worse for the environment.

And reusables do not eliminate the need for bags to manage household waste.

The 3R’s has worked in Quebec to reduce bag numbers. It is a model for sustained behavioural change. In 2008, the Province in cooperation with the bag industry and retailers launched a voluntary reduction program promoting the 3R’s to the public. By 2010, only two years into the five year program, the number of bags distributed declined by 52%; consumption of reusable bags soared; and bag recycling was a healthy 33% of all bags distributed. The program worked for the following reasons: 1. It was a collaborative effort involving government, retailers, industry and citizens. 2. It avoided the negative environmental, economic and social unintended consequences caused by bag bans. 3. It provided Quebecers with the education, tools and right choices to manage bags environmentally.