Business owners in Newfoundland and Labrador care about the environment and do what they feel is possible in their business to make a difference. Many business owners, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, are questioning whether banning plastic bags is actually the best solution to protect the environment.
Micro-plastics found in the province’s rivers and oceans are cause for concern because they take so long to break down and are eaten by wildlife. However, those micro-plastics are found not only in plastic bags, but also in other plastics such as beverage containers. Recently, American researchers reported that between 1950 and 2015, there have been 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic produced, of which nine per cent was recycled, 12 per cent was incinerated, and 79 per cent went into landfills or the environment.
While this is a global figure, the research applies to Newfoundland and Labrador, where there is satisfaction with 15 to 20 per cent of all recyclable products actually being recycled. Collectively, we need to do a better job recycling paper and plastics to ensure they don’t go to the landfill, or worse, into the environment. Any plastic bottle not being recycled, more than likely, is finding its way into the ocean.
Despite hundreds of millions spent on waste management infrastructure, littering in this province is atrocious and shows absolute disregard for the environment. A 2016 roadside litter audit undertaken by the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board concluded that 1.1 million plastic bags (nearly one per cent of those used in Newfoundland and Labrador annually) are littering the province’s roads; the audit estimated there are 92 million pieces of litter on roads administered by the provincial government.
Some would have us believe that plastic bags are a huge problem with the growth of so-called “plastic forests,” but that is exaggerated. These plastic forests are typically found around landfills from which plastic bags and other materials are often carried by the wind. The simple solution is to adopt appropriate techniques to cover these materials so they stay in the landfills where they belong.
While a plastic bag ban may not be the answer, that doesn’t mean nothing should be done. Working with business owners and concerned citizens, the provincial government can lead an awareness campaign on the sensitivities around the negative effect of plastic bags (and other plastic products) in the environment. In addition, the government could introduce a modest fee, like five cents, charged to consumers for plastic bags, with an exemption for the province’s smallest businesses.
Doing this in the United Kingdom resulted in an 85 per cent reduction in plastic bags on local beaches and shorelines. Extrapolated to provincial roadways, this would mean approximately 850,000 fewer plastic bags in the environment.
A plastic bag ban could come with unintended consequences and will put many at an inconvenience. It may make many others feel good, but unfortunately, it will have very little effect unless we begin to realistically deal with the reluctance to recycle in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Vaughn Hammond, director of provincial affairs
Newfoundland and Labrador
Canadian Federation of Independent Business