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Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Elected as a Member of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly for the Constituency of Saanich South on May 12, 2009. New Democratic Opposition Critic for the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. Raised on Quadra Island and has an undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia. Extensive track record as a community leader, advocate and environmental activist.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Could it happen in Vancouver? If so, why are we so slow to move?

Plastic bags could be a thing of the past

Tiffany Crawford, Canwest News Service

Published: Friday, January 25, 2008

Eradicating those unsightly plastic bags that hang in trees and clog landfills may not be in the bag just yet but the idea is reaching a fever pitch in Canada and around the world.

On Tuesday, Whole Foods Market, the world's largest natural-food retailer, announced it would stop giving out disposable plastic bags at the checkout counters. All of the retailer's 270 U.S., Canadian and U.K. stores aim to be free of bags by Earth Day on April 22 of this year. And earlier this month China launched a countrywide ban barring shop owners to hand out single-use bags.

Slowly ideas are changing about the need for plastic bags. But could they go the way of the VCR or at the very least become taboo like cigarettes?

"There is a shift in perception," says Tracey Saxby, a 30-year-old environmentalist who lives half of the year in Rossland, B.C., and the other half in Whistler, B.C. "We just don't need them."

Saxby, an Australian native, was one of the first people in North America to champion a ban in her adopted home of Rossland.

About 10 years ago, the budding environmentalist worked in a retail store in Australia, where incidentally the federal environment minister is currently seeking to ban all ultra-thin plastic bags by the end of the year.

She said she would question why she had to give customers a bag even for the tiniest item. It was then on a trip to Coles Bay in Tasmania that she became really passionate about doing something about the problem.

"It was really cool what was happening there because it's such a tourist attraction and all of these thousands of tourists who came to see the national park were also witnessing a town without plastic bags and really seeing it work, she said by phone from her family home in Brisbane.

The village of Coles Bay, which attracts about 25,000 tourists a year, became the first community in Australia to ban the bags in 2003. The move was copied by dozens more communities in Australia and across the globe.

So Saxby brought the idea home. She took the idea to city council last year in Rossland.

"I said Rossland, let's do this and the whole town got excited," she said. "There was an overwhelming fervour."

The town vied to be the first town in North America to go bag free, but that honour landed in the lap of the small community of Leaf Rapids, Man., on April 2, 2007. With just over 500 residents, city officials handed out more than 5,000 free cloth bags. Leaf Rapids is about 980 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

San Francisco became the first U.S. city to adopt a ban in March after efforts to impose a tax failed, while New Jersey is seeking to be the first state to phase out bags after government implemented a bill in November.

Large global cities are also jumping on board. London's 33 municipal authorities are pushing for an outright ban on plastic bags, and city council in New York trying to pass laws to bar the so-called white pollution.

"It's happening everywhere now," says Saxby, "Vancouver, Toronto, Whistler - all these places are looking at options and are committed to reducing or eliminating them. Reusable bags are everywhere."

The idea is gaining worldwide momentum. There are now restrictions or bans in Ireland, Taiwan, Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar and South Africa, among others.

The chief administrator in Leaf Rapids, Martin Van Osch, says the whole community is willing to use the cloth bags to do their shopping. Local businesses could be fined $1,000 for ignoring the ban, but no fines have been levied.

"It's a good thing because people are learning that plastic bags are not free. There's a price," says Saxby.

It's estimated that plastic bags take about 1,000 years to break-down in the environment.

The tricky part of the equation for many Canadians is the perennial question: plastic or paper? But environmentalists say using paper isn't the answer either. Opponents say they use too many trees, create more greenhouse gas emissions in manufacturing and take up more space in landfills.

Environmentalists argue that consumers must look at other options.

"We wouldn't oppose a ban, but we currently propose a tax," said the leader of Canada's national Green Party Elizabeth May, noting a federal ban is highly unlikely in Canada.

"We need to convince consumers that, on so many levels, these are not essential products," she says. "It's a created false need."

Saxby agrees. "It was only in the '70s that we even started to use these plastic bags."

Tips to reduce plastic bag use:
. Buy cloth shopping bags available at most grocery stores
. If you are only buying a couple of items, consider carrying them.
. Consolidate purchases into one bag.
. Place fruit and veggies directly into your basket.
. Purchase lightweight mesh or cotton fruit and veggie bags to use for little things like peas or beans.
. Avoid double bagging.
. If an item already has a handle don't put it in another bag.
. Ask the store for produce boxes that you can re-use and then recycle.
. On a bike? Take a back-pack with you.

What can I use as a garbage bag?
. Compost organic material. Recycle as much as possible. Rinse your bin and reuse.
. Re-use newspaper to line your garbage bin: Save a few sheets of newspaper each week to wrap your rubbish or line your garbage bin. This helps minimize mess and is a good alternative to plastic garbage bin liners.
. Purchase biodegradable bags. While biodegradable bags are not the solution (we need to reduce our waste first!) they are a compromise if you feel you do need to line your bin.

What can I use to pick up dog poop?
. Re-use plastic bags that you get as packaging. For example, bread bags, or paper mushroom bags.
. Buy a dog-composting unit that you can install in a corner of your yard.
.Ask your local pet store to order a dog composting unit for you.