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LETTER: Our plastic bag problem: whose ‘solution’ will we get?

Once Smith's petition kicks off, she plans to speak to the municipality about the issue.
- Contributed

Last week The Telegram reported that government was close to reaching a decision about how to address our plastic bag waste problem.

That’s good news given that we go through more than 100 million single-use plastic bags every year in this province.

Since it is uneconomic to recycle them, these bags end up polluting our land and sea and poisoning the wildlife that live there.

The big question is whose solution to this environmental problem is the government going to choose? Will it be that of Municipalities NL, who three years ago called for a province wide ban on single-use plastic bags?

Or will government accept corporate recommendations?

Both retailers and the plastic industry probably strongly oppose a ban. They are much more likely to push for a modest five-cent levy or rebate on every plastic bag shoppers use. There are already precedents for that here. Walmart has a five-cent levy in place, while Colemans uses a five-cent rebate incentive.

Our local chapter of the Council of Canadians decided to do a visual survey of plastic bag use at four Walmart stores and three Coleman stores on the Avalon. We already knew from our previous survey of 17 Dominion and Sobeys stores across the Avalon that 84.5 per cent of these customers were still using only plastic bags.

That gave us a basis for comparison.

What we discovered was that Colemans’ rebate scheme made less than a two per cent difference to those statistics. 

On the other hand, our Walmart survey found that approximately 67.3 per cent of Walmart shoppers were using plastic bags. That’s a reduction of 17.2 per cent, which may sound okay until you do the arithmetic. If 84.5 per cent of shoppers consume over a million bags each year, 67.3 per cent will still be consuming almost 80 million bags annually.

That’s hardly a solution.

The problem isn’t the levy as such.

It’s that the amount appears to be too small to change people’s habits. There’s ample evidence of that from jurisdictions around the world. It’s why P.E.I., which has legislated a ban on plastic bags to be eased in over an 18-month period starting in June, coupled their ban with an initial levy of 15 cents per bag followed by a 25-cent levy one year later.

The P.E.I. model would cost little to implement in this province. That should make it appealing both administratively and economically. 

However, there are also compelling political reasons for adopting a ban. Waste collection in this province is a municipal responsibility.  From a practical perspective that means that Municipalities NL know what they are talking about when they say there is a need for a ban.

Perhaps even more importantly, Municipalities NL also represents councillors elected by, and thus serving, the same population that elected our provincial government. In a healthy democratic society that should give their request enormous clout.

But does government see it that way?

It’s the position of our group, and we hope many others, that a levy alone would be a token response. A levy alone, especially if it’s a small one, will not substantially change consumer habits. 

Nor will it solve our plastic bag trash problem. It will, however, keep the corporate sector reasonably happy.

The coming decision of government will tell us a great deal about whose interests our elected leaders value most.

Let’s hope they understand what’s at stake.

Marilyn Reid

St. John’s chapter of the Council of Canadians

Related story:

Plastic bag ban decision coming soon for Newfoundland and Labrador

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