Group pushes to ban plastic bags in Wakefield, Quebec

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by Trevor Greenway on December 10, 2009

If the Fair Trade Town Committee gets its way, La Peche could be the second municipality in Quebec to completely ban single use plastic bags, and the first in the province to ban Styrofoam.

According to Chantal Plamondon of the Fair Trade Town Committee, her group has officially requested the ban that would apply to the entire municipality.

During an information meeting geared towards retailers and the general public Nov. 24, Plamondon, who owns the online store Life Without Plastic, said that several Wakefield retailers felt “uncomfortable” charging customers for bags, one strategy to reduce plastic bag consumption. She said they instead prefer the municipality take a stand by banning them completely, which would make it easier for business owners to explain to customers why they can’t give out a plastic bag.

Only four merchants turned out for the info session, and at least one retailer, The Wakefield General Store, opposes a complete ban.

“I’m not sure if customers would want to buy chicken and potentially have it leak on their lettuce,” said owner John Nesbitt.

“I think a total ban is a bit harsh.”

He said he’s already seen a 50 to 60 per cent reduction in the demand for plastic bags by customers over the last year. He said his customers are changing their habits of their own accord, with “nine out of ten people” voluntarily going back out to the car to fish out a reusable cloth bag.

Now that many people remember to bring their own bag, those who insist on taking plastic bags from his store usually want to use later as garbage bags. He added that the plastic bags at his store are biodegradable.

But Plamondon points out that not all “biodegradable” bags live up to their name.

“Customers need to be aware that not all biodegradable bags are actually compostable,” she said, adding that true compostable bags have a logo from the Biodegradable Products Institute and the US Composting Council that say “compostable.” She understands that consumers need plastic bags for garbage, but she advises them to use the compostable ones instead of straight plastic. (See related story this page.)

The issue of banning “bad” plastic bags and allowing “good” ones is a complicated issue and Plamondon agrees that educating the public needs to be a top priority for the cause. The Fair Trade Town committee, along with its sub-committee, the Plastic Alternatives Committee, has asked the municipality to set aside $11,475 in the 2010 budget to expand the awareness about the project to the entire municipality. That money would go towards purchasing the film “Accros au plastique de lan Connacher” to better reach the francophones of La Peche; purchasing compostable plastic bags to distribute to each resident with an information brochure inside, and purchasing 500 reusable cloth bags to offer residents for free on a first come, first serve basis.

La Peche Mayor Robert Bussiere would not commit to funding the awareness project, though the municipality is still in the process of hammering out the budget.

“It’s not a matter of wanting or not,” said Bussiere.

“It’s if we can do it financially. It’s a great idea, but no decision has been made.”

He said that the request is not currently slated in next year’s budget.

Biodegradable vs. Compostable

This table, created by Jay Sinha of the Plastic Alternatives Committee, offer tips to consumer when choosing compostable and biodegradable bags.

This table, created by Jay Sinha of the Plastic Alternatives Committee, offer tips to consumer when choosing compostable and biodegradable bags. Click to enlarge

“Eco bags”, “bio bags”, “compostable bags”.

Not all bags that are designed to decompose into the earth are created equally, and it’s a tough job figuring out which bag does (or doesn’t do) what.

According to Chantal Plamondon, head of the Wakefield-La Peche Plastics Alternatives Committee, and owner of online store Life Without Plastic, to date the best bag for the environment is the one marked “compostable” and carry a logo from the Biodegradable Products Institute and the US Composting Council.

According to Plamondon, plastics in bags marked “biodegradable” degrade completely into the natural environment by naturally occurring microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and algae. By contrast, compostable plastics undergo complete degradation by a biological process to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at the same rate as other known compostable materials. Compostable bags leave no toxic residue behind.

All compostable bags are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable bags are compostable, according to Plamondon. There are several different types of “compostable” bags, some better than others. Some are made from petroleum products and are not recommended by the committee. The top three recommendations for compostable bags are Bag to Earth, Bio Bag and Bio Sac. (See table)

The Wakefield General Store’s bags do not have the “compostable” logo, but they do have a Natur Sac logo that says the bag is 100 per cent biodegradable and non-pollutant. According to Plamondon, the bag is biodegradable, but not compostable.

Retailers need to help change customers’ habits

When customers buy a fruit bowl or a pair of slippers from his Wakefield gift shop, Earl Hansen does his best keep plastic bags out of the transaction.

Thanks to subtle hints, and the odd direct question from his side of the sales counter, co-owner of The Jamboree Earl Hansen said that he has already noticed a 60 per cent drop in the amount of plastic bags given out since 2007.

“That’s just because people are changing their habits slowly and we change our habits with the customer,” said Hansen.

Even with that drop, the shop keeper doesn’t see a full plastic bag ban coming into effect anytime soon and he doesn’t feel that is the best solution to reducing plastic bag consumption in La Peche.

A better solution is for store staff to actively remind customers that they don’t really need that bag, and to also provide an alternative to plastic.

Instead of automatically wrapping something up for a customer, Hansen will say things like “Did you bring a reusable bag today?” or “Do you require a bag today? The more blunt deterrent is to ask “Do you really need a bag for that?”

Hansen feels these little tricks are what business owners need to share with each other to help customers change their habits.

Jamboree also started selling their own reusable bags and has sold 1,300 in the past year-and-a-half. They sell they bags at cost for $.

Plastic bags still remain behind the counter, for the customer who buys that lovely leather bag but did so on a rainy day.

I’m going to wrap it up,” said Hansen. “We can use (plastic) for what it’s good for.”

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