This fall the local chapter of the Council of Canadians conducted a visual survey outside 21 Dominion, Sobeys and Coleman’s stores across the Avalon Peninsula. We wanted to know how many shoppers were using reusable bags. What we discovered was sobering.
Approximately 88 per cent, or close to nine out of every 10 people carrying groceries out of the stores, were using plastic bags. Guesstimated by age we found that 16 per cent of seniors, nine per cent of middle-aged shoppers and 11 per cent of young people had committed to using reusable bags.
Why does this matter? In this province alone, we go through 100 million to 120 million plastic bags every year. Rarely are these bags used more than twice before they are discarded. Since it is economically unviable to recycle them, almost all end up in landfills or littering and poisoning our land and sea. These throwaway bags can take several hundred years to break down.
But it’s not just our environment and wildlife that are being contaminated by plastics. A small but ground-breaking study last month revealed for the first time the presence of microplastics in our own guts and feces. Given that they were found in every subject, (all of whom were healthy), statisticians speculate that as much as half the world’s population may be already affected. Scientists have no idea yet what the long-term implications are for human health, but you know it can’t be good.
Of course, humans aren’t choking on plastic bags. It’s believed a lot of the microplastics in our system come from plastic bottles, from packaging on food and from contaminated fish. As individuals we can protect ourselves against that, if we so wish, simply by changing our buying habits.
A small but ground-breaking study last month revealed for the first time the presence of microplastics in our own guts and feces .
But what about that other habit we have? How do we wean ourselves off plastic bags at the grocery checkout? Should it be left to individuals or is this a societal problem that requires legislative action by government? The United Nations, in a report that came out last June, is advocating the latter. This is hardly a radical recommendation given that more than 60 countries have already legislated bans or levies on single-use plastic bags.
Here in Canada, P.E.I. became the first province to do so last summer. The P.E.I. government has given islanders a year to adjust to the idea. Then, starting next July there will be a levy of 15 cents on plastic bag use. That will go up to 25 cents a year later and will eventually lead to a complete ban.
We could do the same thing in this province. In fact, two years ago Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador asked the provincial government to legislate a ban on single-use plastic bags. In spite of the fact that our own civil service has published a report documenting the problems caused by plastic bags, government is still waffling about the issue. During a CBC interview last summer, Environment Minister Andrew Parsons spoke of the need to consult with all sides. Those “sides” he was referring to are, of course, the corporate and retail sector. Neither wants a ban.
This fall the European Parliament voted in favour of bringing in a ban, not just on plastic bags but on all throwaway plastic packaging by 2021. That’s enormous. It indicates that dramatic change is coming. The questions for us are: do we really want to be one of the last to get on board? How many more hundreds of millions of plastic bags are we going to let litter and poison our province before government acts?
Municipalities NL is asking citizens to take a personal stand by writing to government urging a ban.
We hope that Telegram readers will consider doing just that.
For the St. John’s chapter of the Council of Canadians