Milk bags avoid anti-plastic environmental backlash

A few months ago, the world became obsessed with plastic straws.

Reject the plastic straw at the bar, environmentalists said, for the sake of the oceans. Doing so will keep the planet greener, they argued.

In July, Seattle became the first major American city to ban plastic straws and utensils. Since then, San Francisco has followed suit with its ban taking effect in 2019.

Here in Canada, A&W announced it plans to abandon plastic straws at all locations by the end of the year. The company said it will change to sustainably sourced and biodegradable paper straws.

The latest attention to plastic straws follows previous concern within North America about other plastic products and their effects on the environment, despite the fact most of the world’s plastic pollution comes from China.

For years, shoppers have been encouraged to bring their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery story to prevent plastic bags ending up in the landfill. Forget your bag? Pay a fee.

Plastic water bottles have also been scrutinized, with several university campuses banning the sale of bottled water to encourage students to bring reusable beverage containers.

Here in Ottawa, microbeads, those small beads of plastic often found in products like shampoo, became the focus of attention in Parliament, where MPs banned them,

Yet, with all the attention on plastics and environmental sustainability, somehow Ontario’s overall recycling habits have yet to feel the heat.

Take milk in bags for instance.

In Ontario and Quebec, milk comes in a plastic bag that holds three smaller plastic bags. The smaller bags are then placed in a reusable plastic jug so you can pour your milk. Full disclosure: despite having lived here for nearly nine years, the concept still baffles me.

Proponents argue the bags are more environmentally friendly than their plastic jug or carton counterparts because they use less plastic. They also save on space and freeze easier than their jug counterparts. The space-saving argument is a point of contention because rather than one jug, there’s now a jug and the remaining bags of milk left to be stored.

There is much love shown for milk in bags in this part of the world, to the point where there are many blogs dedicated to possible reuses of milk bags, with one person insisting they can be rewashed and used as sandwich bags.

In all my years living in Ontario, I have never seen someone bring a sandwich wrapped in a milk bag. Not once. While not a scientific survey, when I asked my Ontario colleagues if they’d ever used a milk bag as a sandwich bag, every single person wrinkled their nose and said no.

Milk in bags is also cheaper to produce. First introduced in 1967 by DuPont when glass bottles were going out of favour, their popularity emerged in 1970 when Canada transitioned to the metric system. Bags were easier to manipulate than jugs and cartons, which needed to be redesigned.

The thing is, most cities don’t recycle milk bags. In Ottawa, only numbered or hard plastics can be recycled in your blue bin.

Take my household as an example. I buy about four litres of milk every week to 10 days, which means every week to 10 days four plastic bags end up in the garbage. With 52 weeks in a year, simple math suggests on average between 150 and 200 plastic bags end up in a landfill from my house alone every year.

That’s a heck of a lot more plastic being sent to the landfill compared to my personal straw consumption.

Then there’s Ontario’s bottle-return policy.

While other provinces allow pop cans, juice boxes and tetra packs to be returned for a small deposit (in Alberta, people can even take their milk jugs and cartons to the bottle depot for a return), Ontario only puts a deposit on alcohol bottles.

Soda cans, juice boxes, soy- and almond-milk tetra packs are simply tossed in the blue bin, milk bags excluded, of course.

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