It’s time to admit that plastic bag fees aren’t actually working: Peter Shawn Taylor

Feel-good business trends often seem unstoppable—until they run up against real life and collapse

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Plastic bag

(Steve Gallagher/Cultura/Getty)

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell’s first really big idea was his 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point. Like viruses, he argued, ideas, trends and fashions could quickly become contagious through tiny, almost imperceptible changes in the status quo. “Little things can make a big difference,” he argued.

It’s a great insight. But does it work in reverse? Can overwhelmingly dominant ideas or trends rapidly disappear in a way no one even notices? You’ll find the answer at the checkout.

Recall that back in 2009 hysteria about plastic shopping bags reached fever pitch. In true infectious style, everyone suddenly became convinced single-use retail bags were a scourge on the environment and evidence our consumer lifestyle was out of control.

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In June 2009, as a response to widespread calls for bans or other anti-bag measures from environmental groups, the city of Toronto required that all local stores charge 5¢ for every plastic bag they handed out. This in turn prompted many national chain stores—Indigo, Home Depot, Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws among them—to announce with great fanfare they were voluntarily extending Toronto’s 5¢ fee to all stores nationwide. In Gladwell’s parlance, plastic-bag fees had tipped.

For a short time this proved to be a dream issue for retailers: the chance to turn a profit on something formerly considered an expense, all the while wrapping oneself in environmental virtue.

As a practical matter, however, banning or charging for bags never made much sense. Their contribution to urban waste is negligible: a recent Toronto street-litter survey found plastic retail bags constitute less than 1% of total garbage. Most customers reused their free bags for pet waste or something else. And most important, bags have the practical purpose of getting your groceries home safely. While everyone dutifully schlepped cloth bags around to save the fee, this simply added to the hassle of shopping.

Fast-forward five years and plastic bag fees are in full retreat. Toronto has undone its bylaw; and many of the leading bag-fee proponents have gone back to handing out free bags—although they seem to have skipped the fanfare this time around.

“We phased out the charge last year,” an Indigo rep told me via e-mail, adding “a large factor in our decision was customer feedback.” Home Depot no longer charges for bags either. Loblaws quietly dropped its fee in Atlantic Canada once it discovered its competitor was giving away bags for free. And personal experience at Shoppers Drug Mart and Sobeys suggests many cashiers have simply given up on the bag fee regardless of corporate policy. “I don’t charge for bags if I like you,” one cashier told me conspiratorially.

Some stores still charge for bags. Others have banned them. But by and large, free bags are back, because customers never really liked the policy in the first place. The bag-fee movement—driven by environmental crusaders and corporate group-think—un-tipped because it conflicted with the primacy of consumer preferences.

A lot of social and environmental causes fit this pattern. Consider the demonization of individual water bottles, a move that predates the plastic-bag fee. Despite a massive push among universities, municipal governments and other institutions to ban the flimsy plastic containers and force everyone to drink tap water, their popularity continues unabated. It’s actually one of the few beverage sectors to show sustained growth over the past five years. People like bottled water and find it convenient, regardless of what their betters have to say. Other current fixations seem equally ready for their un-tipping point: gender targets on corporate boards, anti-GMO food complaints, green energy-subsidies, and social licences for mining companies.

Businesses caught up in do-right crazes like the bag fee will inevitably (and embarrassingly) find themselves offside with customers once the fad proves bogus. Smart companies will heed that lesson, and tread carefully.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues

11 comments on “It’s time to admit that plastic bag fees aren’t actually working: Peter Shawn Taylor

  1. My local grocer gives biodegradable bags away for free. Any retailer who charges for bags is fooling consumers. It has nothing to do with the environment. Those bags cost less than a penny a piece – they are the product with the highest mark up in the store! If retailers truly cared for the environment, there are alternatives. I try to boycott any retailer who charges for bags.

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  2. If you’re going to state that the fee didn’t work, why not use actual stats rather than opinion or the reaction of various businesses after the fee was overturned. In my experience, the fee did work. My company issued 75% less plastic bags during the ban. The issue wasn’t the fee, it was the fact that it was only local to the city of Toronto and that it was eventually overturned. And many retailers didn’t use it as a profit centre – many donated the proceeds to charities (especially small retailers, for whom the 5 cents wouldn’t come close to covering costs.

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  3. “While everyone dutifully schlepped cloth bags around to save the fee, this simply added to the hassle of shopping.” Really? Does that statement reflect your personal bias, or some schmanzy truth only you know? How about the careless disposal of plastics, which kills birds and animals. Is that a hassle too? In a school, students are too lazy to take the few extra steps to toss an empty plastic bottle in a recycling receptacle. Too much hassle. Nice lesson, when a writer reinforces such an attitude. I ‘schlepp’ cloth/reusable bags around no problem, and have for years, nothing awkward about it. What’s really awkward is the non-schlepper who is blithely ignorant, or ambivalent, about the value of 3Rs — which teaches not just conservation, but also respect for the world in which we live. Like oxygen? Too much hassle to help protect that?! This article is proof there will always be an element of self-absorbed individuals, too clueless to realise that by the time the environment has become too inhospitable to survive, it’ll be a little too late to then actually put up with the hassle.

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    • So true… What a shame CB allows such “writers” in their staff. I’d understand if such non-sense was expressed by someone from the street with poor education and intelligence. When he states that “a recent Toronto street-litter survey found plastic retail bags constitute less than 1% of total garbage”, I wonder what 1% signifies in this case: is it measured by weight or by volume or by estimated adverse impact on environment or anything else ?? It’s like telling a 8 year old boy to write an article about the matter…. Completely irresponsible, full of typical consumerism attitude… so sad !

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  4. I hope everybody reads the comments made by GJ, TonyInMontreal and Proud Tree Hugger. All three of them brought up great points and highlighted the detestable characteristic of Canadian business and society. I’m 100% on board with you three. Really wish CB didn’t publish this article.

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    • So true… What a shame CB allows such “writers” in their staff. I’d understand if such non-sense was expressed by someone from the street with poor education and intelligence. When he states that “a recent Toronto street-litter survey found plastic retail bags constitute less than 1% of total garbage”, I wonder what 1% signifies in this case: is it measured by weight or by volume or by estimated adverse impact on environment or anything else ?? It’s like telling a 8 year old boy to write an article about the matter…. Completely irresponsible, full of typical consumerism attitude… so sad !

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  5. Mr Peter Shawn Taylor,

    One can hardly compare gender targets with plastic bags. Concern around the lack of equitable gender representation, is in no-way ” a current fixation”, that has been around since universal suffrage. Write intelligently sir, or do not write at all.

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  6. Fee for a bag = poor shopping experience

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  7. It is not that plastic bag fees aren’t working, but that the plastic industry has been effective in campaigning against them. When Rob Ford got the fee repealed, council responded by instituting an outright ban. The plastics industry threatened a suit against the City of Toronto, and soon the councilors caved.

    It is also hogwash to suggest that such fees don’t work. Victoria doesn’t have a fee policy similar to that Toronto had, but Thrifty Foods (a chain owned by Sobeys) does the same thing in reverse. Instead of charging a fee, it credits you 3c per bag you reuse. You’ll see the large majority bringing in their bags.There are some others that charge for bags, but let you know the revenue is going to a specified charity.

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    • Always have my bags in my purse (3) if I need more then the car has the rest. I get a credit for using them and know I am not hurting the environment.

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  8. The impact of plastic bags is hardly “negligible”. Your referencing of a street-litter survey to highlight the “less than 1% of total garbage” claim is irresponsible journalism.

    Putting aside this author’s obvious bias, eliminating the plastic bag fee is a step-backwards for retailers. One can only hope that we continue to educate new generations, while the dinosaurs who are inconvenienced by policies such as this shrink in population each year. In the meantime, I’ll keep “schlepping” my cloth bags.

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