The decades-old, worldwide movement to ban the use of thin plastic bags has finally reached Vancouver Island — but not the Comox Valley.

From Uganda to St. John’s Newfoundland. And from Denmark to California, cities, states and entire countries have banned the distribution of the thin single-use polyethylene plastic bags.

And the trend is moving north on Vancouver Island. A Victoria bag ban goes into effect on July 1. Nanaimo has voted to ban the bags, and Parksville and Qualicum Beach are in the process.

But the topic has barely crossed the radar of elected officials in the Comox Valley.

What’s the problem?

One trillion lightweight plastic shopping bags are used worldwide every year, according to the Earth Policy Institute. That’s two million every minute.

Americans use about one of these bags per person per day. Canadians use one to two bags per week. In Denmark, where the world’s first plastic bag ban was implemented in 1993, Danes use only about four bags per person per year.

Based on a rough estimate of our current regional population (67,000), and if Comox Valley residents are typical Canadian consumers, we’re using and discarding somewhere between 9,000 and 19,000 plastic bags per day.

That’s a big problem. Most of these bags contain polyethylene and therefore do not biodegrade. They will last virtually forever.

And, unfortunately, fewer than 3 percent of the bags get recycled. The rest end up in landfills or fly away to wallpaper fences and trees and often will ultimately wash down rivers and streams into the ocean.

Among the common trash items found on beaches, the bags rank second, contributing significantly to the massive patch of garbage swirling together in the Pacific Ocean. When the plastic eventually breaks down into tiny bits, it’s consumed by marine life and then works it way back up the food chain to humans.

To address this issue, governments across Canada and around the world are curtailing the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags .

Comox Valley elected officials

It’s surprising that the Comox Valley, a region with such a strong environmental reputation, has not yet banned non-biodegradable bags. Especially because there are plenty of documented benefits and practically no downside to a ban.

But from a quick email survey of Comox Valley elected officials, it appears that only the City of Courtenay has ever discussed the topic of banning single-use plastic bags.

Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula said, “Our council dealt with this issues several years ago and at that time choose to convince retail outlets to push for cloth shopping bags, which has been done.”

Councilor Bob Wells said he recalls that discussion and he subsequently supported the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce’s successful initiative to encourage retailers and consumers to use reusable shopping bags.

Still, Wells said he could support a city bag ban.

In Comox, Mayor Paul Ives doesn’t favor a municipal ban, although Councilor Maureen Swift said “It sounds like a great idea.”

“It would be best to come from the retail sector rather than top down,” Ives said.

That sentiment was echoed by Cumberland council members, who feel it’s a non-issue in their village.

“Many of Cumberland’s vendors are already doing it (not offering plastic bags),” said Council Roger Kishi. “We don’t want to be ‘big’ government, so we don’t want to intervene where we don’t need to.”

Councilor Gwen Sproule agreed.

“Not sure why it would be discussed, because I can’t think which business gives out single-use bags,” she said. “Certainly not Seeds Organics supermarket.”

But Sproule added that possibly the convenience stores are using them, and that might warrant some discussion.

A Chamber effort in 2009

It’s somewhat surprising that the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce has been the leader of a movement to eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags. It’s generally — and wrongly — assumed that businesses oppose banning the bags.

But Chamber Chief Executive Officer Diane Hawkins said there was a “terrific response from the business community … to our well-run marketing plan.”

Promotion poster from the 2009 Chamber initiative to reduce use of plastic shopping bags

Starting on February 13, 2009, more than 60 local businesses and agencies participated in distributing 75,000 reusable shopping bags to customers through businesses and local schools in an effort to reduce plastic bag use. There was an accompanying education campaign to explain why the bags are harmful and how people could get involved.

“We had terrific community engagement,” Hawkins said. “People still ask us if they can buy the chamber Eco-Bags. It was a wonderful project that embraced the entire Comox Valley.”

The chamber also lobbied their B.C. chamber colleagues to adopt a “Bagless BC policy.” But the initiative for a provincial bag ban didn’t get much traction.

As good as it was, the chamber’s program relied on each individual business to voluntarily stop using plastic bags. Many, perhaps most, locally-owned businesses still do not offer plastic bags.

But the biggest source of plastic bags in our environment have not complied. Many big box stores, convenience stores, grocery stores and others still offer them. And some of the worst bags come from specialty clothing store chains that give out large plastic bags with purchases.

Yet, Costco has proven that big volume retailers can thrive without offering any shopping bags whatsoever.

Meaghan Cursons, who was contracted to manage the chamber’s initiative, said the biggest problem is changing the behaviour of consumers.

“Until we change, in a significant way, how we as a culture consume, the bag issue won’t go away,” she said. “But removing the ones that don’t actually get recycled, float away in the wind, end up in the water and look like seaweed and sea life is a great start.”

Worldwide bag bans

Leaf Rapids, Man. was the first community in Canada to ban plastic bags in April 2007. Since then, hundreds of large and small Canadian municipalities have followed suit.

Toronto was the first major city in Canada to ban plastic bags effective on Jan. 1, 2013. A Montreal ban begins Jan. 1, 2018.

St. John’s Newfoundland voted in a ban on Nov. 15, despite council members pleading for a province-wide ban.

“Come on, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, get this done for all of us,” said Councilor Debbie Hanlon to CBC News.

A high school student in Fort McMurray, Alberta, created a widely supported petition in 2008 that persuaded the City Council to adopt a ban in 2009.

 

So in the epicenter of the Canadian oil sands, fossil fuel industry workers carry reusable bags into their grocery stores. If it can happen there, surely it could happen in the Comox Valley.

Denmark was the first country to enact a nationwide ban, but many others have followed: Ireland, Italy, Iceland, Brazil, Bangladesh, Belgium and the list goes on.

It will surprise many that Africa has been a global leaders in the bag ban movement. The flimsy bags were a blight on the African landscape, and many people resorted to burning them, which contributed to the 23 percent of all African deaths  linked to environmental factors.

Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia all have total bans in place.

Why not have a Valley-wide ban?

We used to package fast food in Styrofoam boxes, because it was cheap and easy, or so we thought. Once consumers and businesses realized the true costs of the environmental cleanup, it was a painless transition back to paper containers.

No one misses Styrofoam, certainly not our city sewers or the mid-ocean garbage gyres.

There is simply no good reason to continue using the plastic bags in the Comox Valley when there are constructive alternatives available: reusable bags or five-cent paper bags.

Several elected officials told Decafnation that a Valley-wide ban would be too difficult to coordinate between municipalities and the regional district. But it’s been done successfully in other communities that encompass multiple jurisdictions.

And those who use the harmful plastic bags for garbage or picking up dog poop would just have to buy biodegradable versions.

As Meaghan Cursons said, our “culture has to shift its thinking in general about consumption, and waste.”

Besides, when did shoppers become entitled to free plastic bags? It’s a convenience we’ve come to expect, but which our planet can no longer afford.

Further reading: Stop being a bag lady (or bag guy), St. John’s wants province to ban bags, Which countries have banned plastic bags?, What’s so bad about plastic bags?

 

 

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