Documentation:Open Case Studies/Political Science/Regional3

From UBC Wiki

Plastic Bag Reduction Policy Brief

British Columbia Provincial Government - Plastic Bags


Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is an increasingly urgent problem. By the year 2050,it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. In the year 2015, 8.1 million tonnes of plastic, the equivalent of 2275 adult male orcas, ended up in the ocean. And while some of the plastic in the ocean can be seen from the surface most of the dangerous small plastics are on the ocean floor. Plastic in the ocean is a threat to Brit-ish Columbia’s ocean life’s health, tourism, and therefore our economy. A UBC study onthe impact of plastics in the marine birds on the Canadian west coast found that plastic was damaging the health of birds as they end up eating the poisonous plastics. Canadians take home on average 9 to 15 billion single use plastic bags. Efforts to take action to limit the impacts of plastic bags on the environment have been pursued around the world. As a leader of environmental issues, British Columbia is in a position to ensure that consumers do not damage the environment.

Action Plan

2.0 Policy recommendations

A) 5 cents levy on non-compostable, single use bags for six months.

  • This six month grace provides ample time for manufacturers of plastic alternative to safely scale their business, and allow for retailers to smoothly change their orders while allowing them to sell through their old inventories.
  • Three month grace period for businesses to adjust, without risk of fines. This increase will put a negative pressure on consumer compliance and acceptance, ensuring that shopping habits continue to change. This will prevent the perception of the fee on the bags as part of the innate cost of shopping.

B) After six months, all single use, non-compostable bags will be banned from retail stores.

C) After six months from adoption of this policy, all single use bags will have a levy of 10 cents.

D) The single use bag fee will increase at a rate of 5 cents biannually. This will ensure that the pressure on consumers remains consistent and effective.

E) This policy will be set to review in 18 months from initial conception.

2.1 Exemptions.

Products exempt from fees and sale restrictions include bags intended for:

  •   Medical/Hygiene (bags with direct contact to produce, meat and dairy, trash bags)
  •   Individual product packaging
  •   Bags for medical and sanitation applications 2.2 Enforcement Any business which is found to not comply with this policy in regard to application of levies, or continuing to provide non-compostable bags past the grace period shall be subject to a fine. Enforcement may be com- prised of on spot inspections, anonymous citizen hotline, and investigations. This fine will be determined by the appropriate legislators and consulted groups

A market based solution is the best policy framework to reduce the number of plastic bags in British Columbia. This form of solution would be the most efficient due to its ability to shift the respon- sibility of plastic bag consumption onto the consumer. By shifting the responsibility onto individu- als, the reduction of single use plastic bags can occur more quickly and sustainably than by purley government banning. The most efficient reduction policy seen around the world that would best fit the case of BC would be the proposal seen in Ireland and Scotland. These policies see a low cost charge on single use plastic bags. This levy allows consumers who are willing to pay for the plastic bag to make decision at the same time as manipulating incentives to create a trade off for the con- sumer that reflects the damage that single use plastic bags cost to the environment.

In addition to the low cost levy on plastic bags, this policy proposal suggests that BC can build on an already successful framework to make it even more successful. In addition to a low cost levy on single use plastic bags this proposal recommends that banning of sale of non-compostable single use plastic bags. This ban will significantly reduce the troublesome life cycle of the non- compostable plastic bag while allowing for the market to have flexibility to meet the new set of regulations by continuing the use of compostable single use plastic bags.

Existing Plastic Bans and Levies Around The World.
  •   Cameroon (all)
  •   Eritrea (all)
  •   Maruitania (all)
  •   Kenya (30 microns)
  •   Morocco (all)
  •   Rwanda (retail give away of plastic bags)
  •   Somaliland (ban of import, use, and manufacturing)
  •   Tanzania (all)
  •   Tunisia (all)
  •   Bangladesh (all)
  •   Uganda (30 microns)
  •   China (25 microns)
  •   India (50 microns)
  •   France (50 microns)
  •   Italy (all from not biodegradable)
  •   California (ban for all)
  •   Botswana
  •   South Africa (.06 –0.08$)
  •   Hong Kong (0.50$)
  •   Indonesia (0.02-0.47$)
  •  Israel (0.10$)
  •  Denmark (0.40-0.70$)
  •  Germany (0.30$)
  •  Ireland (3.26$)
  •  Netherlands (0.37$)
  •  Wales (0.05$)
  •  Northern Ireland (0.05$) Scotland (0.05$)
  •  England (0.05$)

4.3 What are the alternatives to plastic?

There are two main alternatives to petroleum plastics which are compostable, and one which is almost infinitely reusable. Polylactide, which is a compostable, paper, and cloth.

That said, alternatives to plastic are not without their limitations. According to the Life Cycle As-sessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags conducted by Britain’s Environmental Agency, paper andreusable bags as they are currently made, need to be used a number of times in order to match the carbon footprint of plastic bags. For paper, they need to be re-used three times, for recycled reusable plastic bags, they need to be used four times, and a cotton bag needs to be used 131 times[6]. These results are largely caused by the fact that plastic bags and reusable plastic bags are now frequently made with a high degree of recycled plastic, while paper is mostly made from tim- ber and timber offcuts and cotton bags are made from raw cotton which has a high footprint from transnational manufacturing and shipping[7]. While this study may imply that the status quo is the most environmentally conscious choice, the study does not account for technological advancements and policy changes which may resolve these issues.

4.3.1 Paper

Paper is a clear and obvious alternative for British Columbia as BC is home to a large lumber and paper in- dustry. This is significant since a reduction in petroleum plastics will increase demand for paper products, re-sulting in a strengthening of BC’s paper industry.

While paper is recyclable and fast to biodegrade, paper is not a perfect alternative since by comparison to plastics, it is heavy weak, expensive, has a fairly high carbon footprint, and is prone to tearing. Though these issues may seem significant, smart policy and industry restructuring can increase their feasibility by lowering their cost, improving their durability and re-usability, thereby lowering their carbon footprint[8].


Paper can be made more durable and water resistant thus making them more reusable, through adding long fibers to the wood pulp in the papermaking process, such as cotton. Historically this has been done for print- ing on legal documents and for currency as cotton is durable, soft, and holds ink well. However, cotton is both expensive and has a high carbon footprint since it is resource intensive and cannot be grown locally[9]. Fortu- nately, there are numerous other crops which can be grown in British Columbia which can provide long fibers cheaply enough to increase the strength of paper products, and only marginally increase the weight, such as hemp fiber. Additionally, using the fibers of locally grown crops which are not resource intensive, may be cat- egorized as acting as a carbon sink, and further lowers the carbon footprint of paper.

4.3.2 Polylactide (PLA)

PLA is a plastic which is made from fermented plant starch (typically corn), requires only 32% of the fossil fuel resources as conventional plastics, and is argued as being carbon neutral since the growing of the plants theo- retically removes an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere, as it takes to process the plant matter into PLA[11]. This does not account for the Co2 re-released into the atmosphere as the bag decomposes. While advertised as compostable within three months under ideal lab conditions, PLA may take anywhere between 100 to 1000 years to decompose in landfill conditions.[12] Furthermore, since PLA is non-recyclable, it must be differentiated from the recyclable containers. For these reasons, PLA may be better suited as a compostable alternative to non-recyclable product packaging and bags for produce, rather than as a replacement for petro- leum based carrier bags.


PLA is currently made into bags which can be used for household composting, and are sufficient in this regard.PLA’s best uses are for replacement of plastic products not intended for recycling, but for landfill[13]. Using PLAas a replacement for hard plastics such as clamshell packaging, or soft plastics such as black plastic garbage bags can result in less landfill overall as the PLA will instead likely be diverted to industrial compost.

4.3.3 Cloth

Cloth bags, whether they are synthetic, cotton, or polycotton, are reusable, and are recyclable. Unfortunately, because cotton is an extremely water and pesticide intensive crop, the average new cotton bag would need to be used somewhere between one to two hundred times to be on par with one plastic bag in terms of its carbon footprint. This is not taking into consideration that a ban on plastic bags would result in an increase in for- eign manufacture of cotton bags. Though cotton bags are the ideal replacement, the environmental impact of the supply chain of the textile and garment industry must also be addressed.


Since imposing a tax on new non-recycled re-usable cloth bags would not be viable due to media coverage framing the tax as counter-intuitive to reducing consumption of plastic, solutions which make use of textiles, and are environmentally responsible require ingenuity and long term horizons.

Most clothing is not recycled, but donated, sorted, baled, and shipped to the developing world. There, the clothes are intended to be resold or recycled into new clothing, but the majority of which is burned or dumped. Clothing can be collected washed, and turned into reusable bags which diverts clothing from landfills, and reduces the need for manufacture of new bags. However, with textiles, simply because it is cheap and function- al, does not mean that consumers will not replace it. To address this concern, a gradual reduction strategy can reduce impulse purchasing of cloth bags, as well as sustainable consumption awareness campaigns may be utilized.


This proposal’s intent is to provide a common sense policy recommendation that is aimedat addressing the single-use disposable plastic bag aspect of ocean plastic pollution, with a structured elimination strategy. In order to have a successful policy for the elimination of soft plastics, there are considerations which must be satisfied. What are the costs to citi- zens, what are the costs to businesses, how will this affect the economy and the budget, how will citizens and media respond to the proposition and how will that reflect on government, how can the policy be made so that it is as much a win-win scenario for all involved groups, and finally, are all other considerations accounted for?

This policy brief and its recommendations will address these concerns and lay out thegroundwork for plastic bag elimination. This proposal will reaffirm BC’s environmental pol-icy leadership in order to protect the health of our ecosystems. With this, the province of BC can also contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals by increasing the sus-tainability of some of the world’s greenest cities.


“Many of the activities associated with the production of plasticbags, such as manufacturing and distribution, would fall within provincial jurisdiction under the Constitution Act, 1867 as matters of local works or undertakings under section 92(10) of the Act, property and civil rights (section 92(13)), or matters of a local or private nature in the province (section 92(16)). The regulation of plastic bags as they affect ecosystems, habitats and wildlife would likely fall within provincial capacity to regulate with respect to nat- ural resources under section 92A of the Constitution Act, [22].

“The authority of Canadian municipalities to enact measures con-nected with plastic bags originates with the constitutional authorityof the provinces, as municipalities are considered “creatures of the provinces” and have no valid legislative power other than thatdelegated to them by the provinces. The basis for most initiatives stems from municipalities’ ability to regulate with respect to waste management, including waste disposal and recycling”.[1]


What will be the impact of the elimination of plastic bags on industry in British Columbia?

In 2015, the plastic and rubber manufacturing industry sales in BC were 1.16 billion dollars, and the paper manufacturing sales were 4.59 billion dollars, falling to 4.25 billion in 2016. Thismeans that the entirety of British Columbia’s pa-per manufacturing industry, which includes paper for books, newspapers, household cleaning, and personal hygiene as well as paper bags, is roughly four times larger than the entirety of BritishColumbia’s plastics and rubber manufacturingindustry, of which, only a small subsection is en- gaged in the manufacturing of plastic bags. Contrary to popular belief, roughly 90% of all disposable plastic bags are made in Canada, and not in China; however, roughly 90% of reus- able bags are made in China. The majority of plastic bags made in Canada are manufactured in Ontario, where the head offices of many ofCanada’s national grocery chains are located.While there are consequences to an integral change in the structure of an industry, the bene- fits will greatly outweigh the consequences. While a shift away from plastic and to paper and reusa- ble bags in BC will have a negative effect on On-tario’s plastics industry, it will also have a positive effect on British Columbia’s lumber and paperindustry which has suffered in recent years. Although BC is home to some plastic bag manu- facturing, plastic bag sales greatly outnumberBritish Columbia’s share of the plastic bag manu- facturing market. This implies that if BC’s pa-per industry were to replace the plastic bag industry, it would be reasonable to expect to see economic growth as the paper industry provides substitute products made in BC, rather than Ontario.


In order to see a rise in the economy due to industry change, there also needs to be a change in change in consumption, and therefore change in demand. For this to occur, consumers need to be accepting of paper bags as an equivalent replace- ment product. Though consumers may notionally approve of the change for the environmental benefits, it is not a guarantee that that will be a sufficient enough factor to change consumer choice. The major factors which consumers care about re- garding shopping bags, is their inexpensiveness, their durability, waterproofness, disposability, and their short term re-usability.

Consumers like the closed system provided by a plastic bag in the sense that it carries their groceries, then their lunch, and finally acts as a small trash bag. This means that in order for plastic bags to be replaced, paper must be able to perfectly satisfy these condi- tions. While paper is not ideal in this regard since the most common paper bags on the market are not waterproof and are prone to tearing, paper bags have the potential to be preferable to plastic and even reusable bags in each of the above cate- gories which consumers care about.

In order to negate the limitations of using paper over plastic, demand for paper must be raised, or demand for plastic must be lowered, or a combina- tion of the two. This can easily be done artificially by levying a tax on plastic bags. The effectiveness of such a tax is highly dependent on the price of the tax, and so choosing the correct price is highly important

Remaining Challenges

To increase the chances for the policy's success, there are numerous steps which should be undertaken. One of the most important of which, is to accurately gauge public support. To this end, a survey measuring citizen openness to environmentally driven sacri- fice, and policy preferences is currently being conducted. A copy of this survey can be found in the Appendix, as well as a link to the survey. Future iterations of this policy proposal will likely draw from survey results.

Other important considerations which will be included in future iterations, is input from interviews with professionals from industries such as paper and lumber, waste management ser- vices, and fishing and ocean management services.

  1. Banks, Sam (March, 2018). [Canada. Library of Parliament. Industry, Infrastructure and Resources Division. Plastic bags: reducing their use through regulation and other initiatives. By Sam Banks. Ottawa: Parliamentary Information and Re- search Service, Library of Parliament, 2008 "Plastic bags: reducing their use through regulation and other initiatives"] Check |url= value (help). Check date values in: |date= (help)