A local social justice group, the St. John's Chapter of the Council of Canadians, has recently taken a strong stand in support of Municipalities NL's request for a ban on single-use plastic bags. They've even done a visual survey of plastic bag consumption at local supermarkets around the Avalon Peninsula. The results were a little surprising. Just 12% of shoppers in the sample used only reusable bags. Another 4% had a combination of reusable and single-use bags.
Why are we writing about this as well? What do plastic bags have to do with our primary interest, which is the erosion of democratic principles both in and outside government? Lots! We've taken a good look at how the Liberal government has handled the request for a ban and we don't like what we see.
The first question has to be:
Is Municipalities NL's request reasonable?
Did you know that every year Newfoundlanders and Labradorians go through an estimated 100-120 million plastic bags, manufactured for single use? Only 3.5% of these bags are returned to retailers by shoppers. The rest end up pretty well everywhere.
According to a recent UN report on global plastic bag pollution, these largely unrecycled bags will take hundreds of years to decompose. The bags won’t just deface our landscape. They will contaminate our soil and water. They will choke and kill wildlife on land and sea, and poison those creatures that manage to initially survive their ingestion.
We now know that plastics are reaching the human food chain as well, thanks to a small but groundbreaking study published in October. The study found microplastics in the guts and feces of all of their human subjects. The researchers concluded that the source of this contamination was, not just fish, but, perhaps even more worrying, plastic packaging including drink bottles. The implications are huge. Statisticians are estimating that as much as half of the world's population may be contaminated.
Governments are gradually waking up to the scope of the problem. Two months ago the European Parliament voted to implement by 2021, not just a ban on single-use bags, but on a wide variety of other single-use plastic packaging, To put that enormous undertaking into perspective, nearly 50% of the plastic waste generated globally is plastic packaging.
the European Union can do this because it is a powerful economic unit that crosses borders. Most countries don't have that kind of control, given that plastic packaging seldom originates in the country in which the product is sold. Countries can, however, exercise control over single-use plastic bags, and more and more are choosing to do so. According to the United Nations report cited above around sixty nations have now instigated bans or levies on plastic bag use.
In June of this year PEI became the first province in Canada to introduce legislation banning single-use plastic bags. The law will be implemented gradually, with a fee or levy of 15 cents per bag starting July 1, 2019. The fee will increase to 25 cents per bag on July 1, 2020. As of Jan.1, 2021, businesses could face fines for distributing free, single-use plastic bags to customers.
In light of all of the above, we believe that Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador showed both vision and leadership back in 2015 and again in 2017 when they asked government to introduce a similar province-wide ban.
Who is for and who is against a plastic bag ban in our province?
Municipalities NL is not alone in its request for a ban. Few people know that back in 2016 the Liberal Party itself passed a non- binding motion urging the government to implement a complete ban. The Leader of the Opposition, Ches Crosbie has also come out in favour of a ban.
Then there is the government’s own report on management of single-use plastic bags. It points out that curbside recycling programs across most jurisdictions do not accept or want single-use plastic bags.
Government’s refusal to publicly commit to a ban is, of course, exactly what industry groups want. The Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, the Canadian Plastics Association, the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses have all contacted government lobbying against a ban. They are suggesting that alternatives to a ban can be found.
What does the recycling "industry" not want us to know?
Just what those alternatives might be is very unclear given that bag recycling is not an economically viable option. According to figures cited in a 2013 article in the The Huffington Post, the estimated cost to recycle one tonne of plastic bags was $4000, while the market price for the same tonnage of recycled bags was a mere $32.
Those shockingly mismatched statistics hint at a dirty little secret the recycling industry doesn’t want us to know. Large amounts of North America’s plastic trash have for years simply been shipped offshore to countries that were willing to accept it, presumably for other trade concessions.
China, a country with the biggest “mismanaged” plastic waste problem in the world has been the main recipient of our plastic garbage. But, since last January China has been refusing to take, not just single-use bags, but a number of other “dirty” plastics. The fear is that other countries will follow suit. Increasingly the talk is of a looming plastic waste crisis that will not likely be easily solved without extensive, complicated inter-jurisdictional collaboration.
Three years after the request for the ban government is still waffling. Why?
We at Democracy Alert acknowledge that plastic packaging is an inter-jurisdictional problem given that so many packaged products are not made where they are sold. Single-use shopping bags, however, are another matter. They represent a straightforward local problem with a manageable solution in the form of a ban that’s been tried in various ways in multiple jurisdictions. It is a solution that won’t cost a lot of money to implement. Nor will it have a negative impact on jobs in the province. There’s even a well thought through blueprint of how it could work thanks to the PEI example.
Of course, Government knows all that. Yet it is now pretty obvious that we're not going to get that ban. Government started preparing us for that reality last summer during Acting Minister Andrew Parsons' ON THE GO interview with CBC . Our favourite quote was “Most single-use bags aren't single use.” While there's some truth there, we would like to know how exactly a dog owner using the bag a second time as a pooper scooper will make a further dent in those 100 million plus bags we consume.
Minister Parsons also said
- “This is just one tiny thing, where we’re dealing with 0.2% of the litter that’s going out there.”
- “We want to work with everybody.”
- “We want to look and see what’s going on across jurisdictions.”
- Government is “looking at some of the other alternatives we can do.”
Government's latest pronouncement, as cited in the community newspaper The Compass last month, is less waffling and perhaps more easy to interpret. “As a result of meeting (with different stakeholders) industry has indicated a willingness to work with the province on a plan to significantly reduce plastic bags.”
We read that as no ban in the near future and no recyling of existing bags. What we are going to get, we suspect, is a voluntary levy - something like a token five cent charge on plastic bags. We notice that many stores have already started doing that.
What is wrong with Government's corporate driven "solution"?
From a practical perspective, if government had read the UN report with an open mind they would know that a five cent charge on plastic bags is not going to make much of a difference. There are good reasons why PEI is starting with a 15 cent levy.
But that is not what upsets us the most.
Government didn’t get the request for a ban from some special interest group that arguably might have a narrow agenda. The request for a ban came from democratically elected municipal leaders representing the same population of voters as those that elected provincial MHAs. That in itself should have given Municipalities NL's request enormous clout.
Our municipalities are also the organizations best placed to understand the scope of the problem since they are responsible for garbage collection and cleanups. They obviously made the request for a ban after considerable discussion. That too should have given their request tremendous clout.
And let's not forget that government's own report made it very clear that there was no recycling solution to the plastic bag problem.
Apparently none of this appears to have mattered to our government leaders. Not even the will of their own party membership has swayed their bias towards a corporate "solution".
What's our conclusion? With an election coming up next year we might want to take a good look at the extent to which our elected leaders seem to be joined at the hip to the corporate sector - so much so that they can't even perceive their own bias.
There's something wrong here.