Technology

No more shopping bags: Paper nor plastic?

The plastic film industry has much to be concerned about in an environmentally conscious age.

With Canada's green consumer market heating up, environmental campaigns are sending a shiver through the plastic film industry. The town of Leaf Rapids, Man., banned plastic grocery bags in April. And in May Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty called for a 50% voluntary reduction in plastic bag use by 2012. The Canadian Plastics Industry Association supports this route (it prefers voluntary campaigns to bans).

But it's clear plastic film manufacturers have much to be concerned about. The one billion plastic bags Ontario hopes to divert from the market by 2012 is the approximate annual output of major manufacturer PCL Packaging's Saint John, N.B., division. At the going rate for polyethylene bags of 2¢ each, a loss of one billion bags means the industry could be out some $20 million.

While Cathy Cirko, vicepresident of the CPIA , feels plastic bags, which she points out make up less than 1% of landfill waste, are a scapegoat, Derek Nighbor, vice-president of national affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, understands why they're an easy target. “We can all relate to the bag of bags stashed under the sink,” he says.

Enter biodegradable plastics, and a chance for the plastics industry to save itself from the backlash. Biodegradable plastic bags come in two types: compost bags, which are made essentially from corn starch that can break down in days, and oxobiodegradable bags, which are similar to plastic bags but contain an additive (derived from natural compounds in mineral salts) that cause bags to break down more quickly, generally in two years. The latter are more widely applicable, as they won't disintegrate while still in use.

Omniplast Inc., a packaging manufacturer based in St- Hubert, Que., started making the switch from traditional plastic to oxo-biodegradable plastic bags two-and-a-half years ago. (It was an easy transition, since manufacturers use the same process to make oxo-biodegradable bags, which now account for 25% of the plastic bags it produces.) Company president Marc Robitaille says Omniplast has seen a 20% revenue rise in the past two years — in spite of a cost premium of up to 15% associated with buying oxo-biodegradable bags — and expects revenues to increase to $50 million, from current sales of $20 million, by 2014.

Still, with the sale of reusable bags, consumers could wean themselves off plastic bags altogether. The designer “I'm not a plastic bag” cloth number sold out the day it was released in June at Holt Renfrew stores across Canada. Those lucky enough to snag the $18 bag can now sell it on eBay for more than $150.

It also doesn't help the oxo-biodegradable plastics companies that such major lobby groups as the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors and the Retail Council of Canada promote reduction and recycling over oxo-biodegradable plastic bags. Since the technology is so new, questions still abound over whether the bags can degrade cleanly — or even at all. “Our goal is simply to reduce the number of plastic bags customers use,” says Kim McKinnon of the CCGD.

Regardless, Robitaille has big expansion plans. Last month, he met with representatives from Mexico's Environment Ministry, who said they're exploring oxo-biodegradable technology as part of a slew of environmental policies coming out early next year. Who knew that after decades spent perfecting plastic to make it stronger, consumers would demand plastic products that self-destruct?