Jenny Hughes has a problem with reusable shopping bags.
Hughes owns , a company that makes high quality, reusable bags in Vancouver. Her organic cotton totes hit the market at the right time: In 2004, plastic shopping bags had just become a environmental issue. She said that Me & You could barely keep up with the demand for its bags as consumers turned away from plastic.
High demand is still Hughes’ problem; unfortunately, the demand isn’t for her bags.
The reusable bag market has been taken over by bags that are flown in from China and sold for $0.99 at grocery stores. Most of these low-cost bags appear to be made from cloth, but are actually made from polypropylene, a synthetic plastic.
“I don’t think a lot of people get it when it says ‘polypropylene.’ I don’t think people actually understand it’s made from petroleum,” Hughes said.
bags are similar to conventional plastic bags, according to materials scientist Derek Gates. “The fact of the matter is that all of these synthetic polymers take a long time to degrade. Maybe 50 years, maybe 200 years, maybe much longer, ” he said.
Unlike plastic bags, polypropylene bags cannot be recycled anywhere in B.C., said Mairi Welman of the Recycling Council of British Columbia.
“When they bust a hole, it’s put some electrician’s tape on it or put it in the garbage,” she said.
Craig Foster, consultant for the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, explained the challenges of recycling polypropylene bags.
“You can’t grind them up in the same way you take a rigid container,” he said. “You’ve got all these strands and threads – they typically just bind up any machines they use.”
Foster questioned why Vancouver adopted synthetic reusable bags so quickly. “Nobody asked, ‘What do we do with them when they wear out?’”
“We’ve taken a product which people label as being bad, even though we had a recycling system in place that could manage it,” said Foster. “We took it out and replaced it with something we can’t reprocess which now has to go to landfill. How do we win?”
The plastic bag and pouch manufacturing industry in Canada is worth approximately $2 billion annually, according to Industry Canada. The most , collected in 2007, shows a steep decline in net revenues and cut of more than 900 production jobs.
“If somebody loses a job in the plastic bag production industry, there’s no replacement job in the reusable bag industry because they all come from overseas,” said Foster.
Henry Wong, president of Solaar Portswear, has also been stung by the production of reusable bags in China.
Wong’s company manufactures a variety of textiles at a small operation in Mt Pleasant, including bags for Hughes’ company. Wong said business with Me & You has slowed since China started making reusable bags.
“You can’t compete with them. They’re bringing in those bags for under a dollar,” said Wong. “It’s all about dollars and cents now.”
It is rare for reusable bags to be produced in Canada. “We still stand apart, being made locally,” said Hughes. “When I go to Google and I type in ‘,’ it’s shocking how many you can get for 20 cents from China,” she said.
Hughes said that the people who buy from her understand they are paying for a more sustainable product.
“I’ve heard from people who bought them six years ago who say they’re still in perfect condition,” said Hughes.
Me & You bags range from $19.99 to $29.99.
Reusable bag alternatives
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Plastic shopping bags by the numbers
- – Number of plastic shopping bags Canadians use each year
- – Petroleum energy from this many plastic shopping bags can drive a car 1km
- – It can take a single plastic shopping bag this long to break down
- – Proportion of Canadians who reuse their plastic shopping bags two or more times, according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.
- 32% – The number of plastic shopping bags in B.C. that get returned to a retailer after use, according to the
- 50% – The amount by which the Retailer Council of Canada and the Grocer’s Association of Canada have promised to reduce the number of plastic shopping bags they hand out in the next five years, according to the Recycling Council of British Columbia.