Save the plastic bag

Junk Science Week

Terence Corcoran Jun 13, 2012 – 9:25 PM ET

They’re just a tiny fraction of litter and landfill

By Terence Corcoran

The Angus Reid polling outfit issued a national poll result Wednesday under this headline: “Three in five Canadians OK with banning plastic shopping bags.” We can’t deal with every form of junk science around during this week, but the bag poll deserves a quick review.

First there’s the warped context-free one-shot question that has the effect of tapping into popular ignorance. “Some Canadian towns have prohibited all retail stores from providing customers with single-use plastic carryout (shopping) bags, urging customers to bring their own bags or boxes instead. Would you support or oppose banning plastic shopping bags in your own city or town?”

On top of the question, there are obvious signs of pollster bias. “What’s fascinating is we do support the notion of a ban,” said Mario Canseco, vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion. Who’s “we”? The only “we” in the room are 58% of Canadians who were accosted with a dumb question and figured, what the hell, I’ll say yes to banning something. That leaves 42% who are not part of Mr. Canseco’s manufactured collective and would prefer not to be dictated to by pollsters wielding biased questions and meaningless opinion results. Maybe we’ll take on opinion polls as a junk-science subject next year.

Meantime, most Canadians, through the media, would be relying on green activists and demagogic politicians who have been promoting plastic bags as a local and national environmental scourge for more than a decade. There’s not enough space here to review the mindset of politicians, including the inhabitants of Toronto city council, who last week voted 27-17 to ban plastic bags by 2013. Most of the bylaw’s backers would be getting their information from professionals, including Dr. Rick Smith, head of Environmental Defense.

Mr. Smith is the inventor of the rubber duckies bisphenol scam, and remains Canada’s leading proponent of chemophobia and other scares. On plastic bags, he was on TV last week claiming they are a monstrous environmental burden in Toronto, a source of litter and garbage. “When the city is using 450 million garbage bags a year, they’re blowing around everywhere … getting rid of them means the city of Toronto doesn’t have to collect these things or recycle them. So there’s a net benefit financially to the city” in banning plastic bags.

Canadians who answer polls should know that Mr. Smith holds a PhD in green bull. He said Canadians know at a “gut level” that plastic bags are a “not terribly complicated environmental issue.” Well, here are three complications:

Litter The last city of Toronto audit of litter across the city, in 2006, found six plastic bags out of 4,341 items. That’s 0.14% by item. By weight, the percentage would be less.

Waste The 450 million plastic bags Mr. Smith mentions is a 2008 number. The city says the current number of bags is now estimated at about 215 million (the science of calculating this is something else). But even the 450 million-bag total, at about six grams per bag, works out to 2,600 tonnes. As a percentage of the city’s estimated 800,000 tonnes of waste, plastic bags would account for 0.3%. If all plastic bags were eliminated — an impossibility given their necessity as garbage-bin liners and other uses — Toronto’s waste stream would be essentially unchanged. Not a penny will be saved, and costs would likely go up under complications brought on by the ban.

Environment Numerous comprehensive studies by people who are as green or greener than Mr. Smith suggest plastic bags are better than the alternatives — whether paper or cloth. Plastic is less polluting and toxic than paper and cotton, according to a 2011 U.K. Environment Agency report. As for global warming, a cloth bag would have to be reused 327 times, and a paper bag nine times, to match the low warming impact of a high-density polyethylene bag that’s reused as a garbage-bin liner.

That’s science, official green science.