By Chari Marple
When it comes to plastic pollution, Ottawa is driving the wrong way down a one-way street. While other Canadian cities are enacting plastic reduction policies, ours is actually increasing plastic use. Last year, the City of Ottawa approved throwing plastic bags in the organic waste bin, starting in mid-2019.
According to Ecology Ottawa, there is no evidence that allowing organic waste to be discarded in plastic bags will encourage more people to compost. The practice will produce new unnecessary plastic waste, which will complicate the disposal process and deliver lower quality compost. Scientists are already warning that microplastics – barely visible fragments or shards of plastic – are being found in farmers’ fields and could end up in our food. Plastic bags in Ottawa’s waste facility will be shredded along with their organic contents. Then plastic will be screened out and sent to the landfill. We don’t know the risk for microplastic contamination of this compost, but it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be residue.
Plastic bags are not biodegradable. They are used for a few minutes, but subsequently remain in the environment for, well, we really don’t know how long. The most common type are manufactured from polyethylene, a man-made material that micro-organisms consuming and decomposing organic material don’t recognize as food. They will photodegrade when exposed to sunlight, fragmenting into micro-plastics. Scientists do not agree on how long that process might take, estimating anywhere between 100 to 1,000 years.
Plastic bags take even longer to break down in tightly compacted landfill space where lack of light and air prevent decomposition. Because the City of Ottawa has no plastic bag recycling, the dump is where most plastic bags end up.
Those that don’t make it to the landfill can find their way into the natural environment where they pose a number of threats. Mammals, birds and marine life eat or get entangled in them. Bags can also cause blockages in sewage systems and pipes. Bangladesh became the first nation to ban plastic bags in 2002 because they were blocking drainage systems during floods.
Recognizing their potential to harm wildlife, infrastructure and the environment generally, a number of countries and cities around the world – 54 of them, to date – are enacting plastic bag bans. These are either outright bans or involve charges for bags. In Canadian cities, the list is growing. In 2007, the small mining town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, became the first community in Canada to ban single- use plastic bags. Fort McMurray, Alberta, Thompson, Manitoba, and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta followed in 2010. Last year Montreal become the first large Canadian city to implement a plastic bag ban, including biodegradable bags, which may release harmful gases as they decompose. Victoria banned the bags six months later. Halifax is next in line. On January 15 of this year, its councillors voted 13-4 to draft a bylaw before December.
The timing seems perfect for Ottawa to join this national and global movement. There is a great deal of momentum, knowledge and experience that our city could profit from to develop and implement its own successful single-use plastic bag ban. A ban was proposed last term but no action was taken. At that time city legal staff advised that the city does not have jurisdiction for such a ban.
Before the City of Victoria rolled out its ban, it had to assert the legal authority to do so. The Canadian Plastic Bag Association challenged the proposed bylaw in the B.C. Supreme Court, claiming that B.C. cities don’t have the authority to regulate the environment as it falls within provincial jurisdiction. However, in his ruling, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nathan Smith determined that cities do in fact have the legal power to regulate business transactions – in this case, providing bags to customers to carry purchased goods. Smith also asserted that the proposed bylaw falls under a city’s responsibility to manage waste. The mayor of Victoria, Lisa Helps declared, “This isn’t just a victory for the City of Victoria, it’s a victory for cities.”
Would a plastic bag ban resolve the plastic pollution problem in Ottawa? Almost every product we purchase has a plastic packaging component to it. While not a panacea, a ban would eliminate one form of plastic from our homes, waste stream and the environment. For example, Victoria used about 17 million single-use plastic bags annually before the ban.
For now, in Ottawa, the responsibility rests with citizens to implement their own, self-motivated ban. In the Glebe we’re already pretty good at it. Put your groceries in a reusable bag, refuse single-use plastic bags, and let your councillor and mayor know that you would like to see Ottawa do a U-turn on its backwards approach to plastics.
Chari Marple is co-chair of the Glebe Community Association Task Force on Single-Use Plastics.