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Why is it taking so long for Metro Vancouver to ban plastic bags?

If you’ve visited a Vancouver beach this spring, you’ll know what I’m talking about: Our otherwise beautiful beaches are littered with plastics, Styrofoam and cigarette butts. It’s a depressing sight.
plastic bag stock

If you’ve visited a Vancouver beach this spring, you’ll know what I’m talking about: Our otherwise beautiful beaches are littered with plastics, Styrofoam and cigarette butts. It’s a depressing sight. My children are getting used to me pulling out some sort of bag of my own to collect as much crap as we can to dispose of properly, or so we hope.

For whatever reason, even though our city is practically surrounded by ocean and rivers, Vancouver has not yet banned one of the top plastic offenders of the planet: the single use disposable plastic bag.

And yet, entire countries, U.S. states and much larger cities than Vancouver have done so. Some have had plastic bag bans in place for years. San Francisco outlawed single use plastic bags back in 2007. Other progressive West Coast U.S. cities to ban the bag include Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles. On the East Coast, Boston has, too. As of March 2020, all of New York State will be plastic bag-free.

Here in Canada, Montreal was the first major city to ban the plastic bag outright, and did so Jan. 1, 2018. Victoria followed suit (and went to the B.C. Supreme Court to do it), officially banning the bag as of July 1, 2018 — Canada Day. Last month, Tofino’s town council voted unanimously to ban plastic bags and straws. They’re working it out.

Further south, plastic bags were banned in Mexico City more than 10 years ago. Entire countries that have made plastic bags illegal include China, France, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa, Italy and Colombia, among many others.

But not Canada, and not Vancouver, the city that was once arguably responsible for the birth of the global environmental movement. This is the place that was the original home to Green Peace, the Green Party of Canada, the Sea Shepherd Society and David Suzuki. Given our history and our politics, shouldn’t we have been the first city on the planet to ban the bag and all single use plastics?

According to a 2018 statement from city hall, two million plastic bags are thrown into the garbage in Vancouver every week. Every week! That means Vancouverites are responsible for throwing out 100 million plastic bags a year. Bob Hunter is rolling over is his grave.

Last year, our city voted to ban plastic straws (something BC Ferries and the village of Deep Cove has already done) along with foam cups and foam to-go containers. That ban takes effect June 1, 2019. But not plastic bags; those are still allowed over the counter in Vancouver by the millions.

On average, a Vancouverite will use a plastic bag for roughly 15 minutes. Then it goes into the garbage or, worse, the environment, or we attempt to recycle it. And we can’t even put them in our curbside recycling bins.

The easiest way for plastic-conscious Lower Mainlanders to recycle plastic bags — including grocery bags, bread bags, produce bags, “compostable” bags and outer plastic covering — is London Drugs. Stores throughout Vancouver, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, New Westminster and the North Shore all recycle them.

Although, when I brought a bundle of what must have been 100 bags into the downtown London Drugs in the old Woodward’s Building, the clerk looked perplexed and couldn’t find the recycling receptacle. He reluctantly took them. I pleaded with him to please make sure they were recycled. I left unconvinced.

According to city councillor Lisa Dominato, who I reached by email, Vancouver is considering a plastic bag ban by 2021. She then referred me to Albert Shamess, the city’s director of waste management and resource recovery. Shamess told me a recommendation for a bag ban may come sooner than 2021.

“We’re in consultation with various stakeholders in Vancouver’s business community, large and small, about this issue,” Shamess said over the phone. “But we’re talking about wide-spread waste reduction, not just plastic bags. We plan to deliver the results of that consultation by summertime.”

Enough talk! I can think of 100 million reasons to implement the ban now, not the least of which is this: the environment agency of the United Nations reports the world still uses five trillion single use bags a year.

When one of our bazillion plastic bags winds up in the ocean, it becomes a kind of zombie serial killer. When a marine animal eats the bag mistaking it for food, it will die. The animal decomposes much faster than the bag. That same bag is then released back into the ocean basically intact, and the cycle repeats itself. Do the apocalyptic math on that, if you dare. Shudder.

There may be good news coming from the federal government in the fight against plastics. According to Environment Minister Katherine McKenna, a plastic packaging “strategy” will be announced this June for the provinces and territories.

In the meantime, what can you do?

  • If you’re still a smoker, properly dispose of your butts. Don’t throw them into the gutter or onto the street. Where do you think they end up?
  • Refuse plastic bags when offered to you at the counter.
  • Properly recycle the ones you do have.
  • Shop with reusable bags.
  • Bring a bag to the beach to pick up plastic garbage.

Let’s hope that Vancouver joins the hundreds of cities around the world already years ahead of us. Otherwise, the very city that once led environmental change for the planet may soon be the only one left holding the bag.


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