Prince Edward Island Has Removed Millions of Plastic Bags From Its Waste Stream

The province-wide ban, implemented a year ago, is hugely successful.

lighthouse on Prince Edward Island
Wood Islands Lighthouse on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

@brockw20 via Twenty20 

It has been one year since Prince Edward Island banned single-use plastic bags, and the results are impressi. The Canadian maritime province used to collect between 15 and 16 million plastic bags annually for disposal, but thanks to the ban that took effect on July 1, 2019, those have all disappeared. 

Gerry Moore, CEO of the Island Waste Management Corporation, told CBC, "We would ship probably in the vicinity of a tractor-trailer load of that material probably every two to three weeks. That's been totally ... eliminated."

Retailers were ordered to offer paper and reusable bags instead, both of which had to be purchased by customers for a pre-set minimum fee; plastic bags could not be made available in stores at all, not even biodegradable or compostable ones. Some cities have swapped out conventional plastic bags for biodegradable ones, citing environmental concerns, but this accomplishes little; despite their name, biodegradable plastics do not break down as effectively as one might hope.

What's refreshing about PEI's bag ban was that its goal was not to replace plastic with paper, but to do all it could to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags. From the provincial government's website: "Consumers are encouraged to use higher quality reusable bags which generally hold more, are more durable and produce less waste, or paper bags."

And that's precisely what has happened. Moore said he expected to see a spike in the number of paper bags being used and discarded, but instead the surcharge acted as a deterrent and helped people to remember to bring their own bags. Businesses were given ample time to use up their supplies of plastic bags and prepare for the change. The entire process has been so successful that Jim Cormier, director of the Atlantic division of Canada's Retail Council, described it as "seamless":

"It's a good example of what can happen if government actually takes the time to consult, but also takes the time to give some lead time before implementing one of their initiatives."

When COVID-19 hit and businesses all over North America began retracting their pledges to eliminate single-use plastics, PEI told retailers they could waive the fee for paper bags, as some businesses were concerned about the potential for contamination with reusables. This worked well, keeping everyone safe and happy without creating heaps of plastic waste. 

paper shopping bag
@gigibunny via Twenty20 

The overall attitude is wonderfully positive. Cormier said, "For the most part [the Retail Council has] heard nothing but good things from the general public." Another government representative told CBC that the response from Island residents was "fantastic." CBC reported that businesses could be fined $10,000 and customers $500 for not following the act, but that, "in the first year since implementing the act, no fines have been issued."

PEI has become the poster child for successful plastic bag bans, and now other provinces are reaching out for advice on how to implement their own.

It's so great to hear an environmental success story like this one, not to mention the fact that it could, in theory, be replicated by every other town and city around the world. PEI has shown what's possible when priorities are crystal-clear, rules are laid out well in advance, and the consequences for failure to comply are tough. We could all do this, too.