Plastic shopping bags have been around only a few decades but are poised to leave a legacy of pollution for thousands of years.
In Newfoundland and Labrador some estimate upward of 200 million bags each year are discarded into landfills, a portion of those making their way into surrounding forests and the ocean.
“They don’t break down and they are costing people in St. John’s a lot of money,” says Sheilagh O’Leary, a city councillor in the provincial capitol and one of a growing number of municipal politicians around the province advocating for a complete ban on single-use plastic bags in Newfoundland and Labrador.
O’Leary says plastic bag pollution is more noticeable in St. John’s, where high winds scatter garbage from Robin Hood Bay landfill throughout the city’s east side. As a result, she explains, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on infrastructure aimed at containing the litter in the landfill site.
Across the province, however, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are contributing to the unnecessary pollution of their own communities and bays and other waterways, says Keith Cormier, a city councillor in Corner Brook.
“Plastic is a substance that Earth cannot digest. It’s not like an apple core, or a leaf falling off a tree. This stuff will be around for thousands of years, and every little bit of plastic that’s ever been made still exists on the planet,” he says, citing international statistics that claim only two to three percent of single-use plastic bags are reused, and that bags are used for an average of 12 minutes.
“My generation caused this problem, the baby boomers,” he says, explaining prior to the 1970s people were content using paper bags or other means to carry their groceries.
As a result of humans’ appetite for convenience, wildlife pays the price, Cormier continues.
According to Ocean Crusaders, an international organization that advocates for clean and healthy oceans, 100,000 marine creatures and approximately one million sea birds die each year from plastic entanglement or from consuming plastic found in the waters and on beaches.
“The bears didn’t cause this problem. The whales didn’t cause this problem. The turtles didn’t cause this problem. The dolphins didn’t cause this problem. The eagles didn’t cause this problem. The supposedly most intelligent species on the planet caused the problem,” says Cormier. “And we’re the ones that got to fix it.”
Fishing-related plastics biggest problem for ocean in province: researcher
Max Liboiron, a researcher in Memorial University’s Department of Geography who studies marine plastics, says most of the plastics found in the ocean waters around Newfoundland originate in Newfoundland.
While plastic bags certainly pollute, Liborion says, her research shows that the main contributor to marine plastic pollution in NL are plastics associated with the fishing industry, like ghost nets, tags, and other equipment used to harvest fish and shellfish.
She supports an outright ban on plastic bags, but acknowledges a ban “isn’t going to impact the marine plastics problem acutely,” she says, explaining all the plastic bags produced in Newfoundland over the course of a year “could probably [fit] into three compact waste bales,” and that plastic bags “get focused on because they’re very charismatic.”
Liboiron says ghost fishing nets that sink to the ocean floor “keep fishing without fishermen attached to them,” killing lobster and fish over an extended period of time.
But plastics making their way into the ocean are also affecting humans, she says, because fish and marine animals that eat plastics absorb chemicals found in plastic, like methylmercury and pesticides, which in turn are transmitted into humans through consumption of seafood.
So while bags are getting much of the attention, plastics like the ones that may be used if the proposed food fishery tagging policy is implemented next year could do more harm to marine life and humans, says Liboiron.
That said, a plastic bag ban offers a way of “thinking about plastic pollution at the scale that plastic pollution happens at,” she explains, as well as a potential pathway to addressing bigger sources of plastic pollution.
“There’s always the potential that, if we’re the type of place that has the political will to ban plastic bags, we might also leverage the same political will — the same people, the same players, the same mechanism — into other modes of plastic pollution that have a greater scale impact on ecosystems here.”
While a handful of communities like Nain and Fogo Island have implemented their own plastic bag bans, Cormier and O’Leary believe a province-wide approach is needed to swiftly and effectively reduce the amount of plastic bags going into the environment.
At its convention last year Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) passed a resolution calling for the complete ban on single-use plastic bags in the province, a decision MNL President and Labrador City Mayor Karen Oldford says was “pretty much unanimous” among MNL’s members, who represent more than 270 communities and around 90 percent of the province’s population.
MNL struck a committee struck last year to look at the motion on plastic bags “and came to the conclusion that really the best way forward is to eliminate plastic bags from our environment altogether,” Oldford says, explaining the committee also looked at the possibility of recommending a move to biodegradable bags.
The committee decided biodegradable bags “didn’t solve anything because they still take thousands of years [to decompose],” she explains, “and they only break up into little tiny pieces which are still left in our environment, ingested by wildlife, and then of course it gets into our food chain.”
The committee’s recommendation for a full ban is being supported by a growing number of municipal councils who are passing their own resolutions supporting MNL’s call to action directed at the provincial government.
At its annual convention earlier this fall the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador joined the call and passed a resolution supporting a full ban on single-use plastic bags, a move that puts pressure on the current Liberal government to legislate a ban if the elected officials are to respect the wishes of the party’s membership.
At the end of the day we all agree that we do not need this plastic in our environment, and how exactly we achieve that is what we’re working with right now. — Perry Trimper, Minister of Environment and Climate Change
“At the end of the day we all agree that we do not need this plastic in our environment, and how exactly we achieve that is what we’re working with right now,” provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper told The Independent in a recent interview.
“The province has woken up to this, and I welcome that.”
Trimper says a recent meeting with MNL representatives and officials from his and other government departments resulted in the formation of a working group that is “working towards a solution” but that he “can’t give a timeline” on when any decisions will be made.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), in response to the call for a plastic bag ban, sent a letter to Trimper and Municipal Affairs Minister Eddie Joyce on Sept. 26, saying CFIB member businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors are “most likely to have a mixed view on the need for a plastic bag ban,” and that regulating plastic bag use is not the way to go.
CFIB’s Director of Provincial Affairs, Vaughn Hammond, wrote in the letter that “it is imprudent to implement a plastic bag ban without knowing what the economic and environmental impacts will be.”
Instead, the CFIB recommends the government “adopt an education and awareness campaign on the need to use cloth bags and re-use single-use plastic bags; undertake an economic and environmental impact analysis prior to the implementation of a plastic bag ban,” and that “municipal leaders should work with small business owners in their respective communities on how best to reduce the number of plastic bags used in their businesses.”
Cormier disagrees that a ban on single-use plastic bags will hurt small businesses.
He says bags average a cost to businesses of between three and four cents per bag, “so if you look at around 20 million bags [used each year] in Corner Brook, that’s $600,000 or $700,000.
“That’s a savings to businesses by not having to provide that,” he continued, citing businesses like WalMart, who in other parts of Canada are providing reusable cloth bags for 25 cents.
“They’re doing it everywhere in Canada [and] Newfoundland’s going to be the last [province]—it’ll come in in 2017,” he says.
If you can buy [affordable reusable bags] as a consumer, it’s no cost to the retailer. The consumer invests $2 to help protect the planet. My perspective is that’s a reasonable ask to everyone on the planet who has caused the problem.”
Cormier says businesses in many other places, especially in Europe, “have thrived when they’ve gotten away from plastic.”
“There are models of companies out there who are successful without having to offer consumers plastic bags,” says O’Leary, pointing to Costco, whose members bring their own bags, use sometimes-available empty boxes, or carry their goods to their car in their shopping carts.
Ban “very necessary”
For people like Cormier and O’Leary, the bottom line is the environment and the accumulating plastic pollution each successive generation is leaving behind.
“We have to be environmental stewards, we have to start protecting the generations who are to come,” says O’Leary. “All across the world we see places [banning] plastic bags. And we just saw California become the first state to now implement a ban. So it’s happening around the world.”
If Newfoundland and Labrador becomes the first province in Canada to ban single-use plastic bags, “it would be a great leap forward…because in Newfoundland we’re often lagging behind other initiatives,” O’Leary continues. “It would be a great thing for [Trimper] to give it the go-ahead. We don’t have a massive population — why are we producing so much plastic?”
We have to be environmental stewards, we have to start protecting the generations who are to come. — Sheilagh O’Leary, St. John’s City Councillor
Cormier says banning plastic bags could be a catalyst for developing a greater ecological awareness in the province.
“In Canada we live in this dream world, this alternate universe, where we are so big and so wide open — we have so much space that it doesn’t matter. But yes it does matter,” he says.
“It may not matter to me at 65 years of age, but it matters to my children and grandchildren, and as the Mi’kmaq people say the seven generations who will come behind us. But we’re the ones that messed this up — nobody else. My generation messed it up, and my generation has to fix it. We owned the problem, so we have to own the solution.”
Oldford acknowledges moving away from using plastic bags will be a challenge because it “is something that’s embedded into our society, so it’s something that’s not going to change overnight.”
She agrees that the transition will require “some educational lead-up time so that we don’t disadvantage anybody, and so we have alternatives in place,” she says, explaining “there may even be local business opportunities for local entrepreneurs using the province’s wood products putting paper bags back in place.”
“I think it comes down to change, and change is hard,” says O’Leary.
“It’s tough, but this is a very necessary thing to happen.”