The debate over plastic bags. CBC Doc Zone Documentary.
It's hard to imagine life in the 21st century without them. Plastic bags only got a handle on the mainstream about 25 years ago but in that time they have become ubiquitous, not only here in Canada but around the globe.
Plastic bags are strong, waterproof, usually free and best of all, they're convenient. The plastics industry touts them as great innovations – lightweight, reusable, efficient. The bag industry provides manufacturing jobs, employing some 7,000 people in Canada alone.
But despite its numerous merits, the plastic bag has become the victim of its own success. Billions are used around the world every year. Each one is made from oil or natural gas and takes hundreds of years to decompose. Environmentalists argue they're a hazard to wildlife and a blight on the landscape.
Hence the icon of convenience is steadily losing its cachet in the consumer world. More stores are charging from them, more places are taxing or banning them.
In January 2008, China became the largest jurisdiction to target plastic bags. The country of more than 1.3 billion took drastic measures, announcing that as of June 1, 2008 consumers will have to pay for plastic shopping bags. And ultra-thin plastic bags will be banned altogether.
China's move comes after a rough year for the plastic shopping bag. 2007 saw the banning or taxing of the bag in towns and cities around the world. San Francisco led the charge with a ban on bags in large supermarkets and drugstores. Two Canadian towns – Leaf Rapids, Manitoba and Rossland, B.C. – weren't far behind. The British also got in on the bag ban with a slew of English towns declaring independence from the handy throwaways, without revolt.
In the 1970s, paper bags still ruled the retail roost. A group of American engineers and technicians working for big oil were bent on changing that. Their mission: to convince supermarkets and consumers that plastic bags were the wave of the future. They had ample financial incentive.
With billions used every year in North America, bags are big business. But they had to develop a practical plastic sack first. There were many unsuccessful attempts until in the early 1980s – presto - the bag with handles was designed.
"With the handles it was easier to carry than the craft paper sack so that people that had some distance to walk from the store could carry several bags by the handles home," says former Mobil Oil employee Terry Donovan.
But convincing supermarket chains wasn't easy. Especially since plastic bags filled with groceries didn't always stand up in a car trunk the same way their paper counterparts did.
"(Stores) would mitigate that risk by offering to the customer, 'well we'll pack your grocery sacks either way, paper or plastic,'" says Donovan.
"Over time even the clientele, the customers, got more used to plastic being offered and oh yeah, I'll take plastic. And of course the rest is history."