The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Usask student joins communities across the globe in the fight against plastic bags

By in News
These bags break down into tiny pieces that fish eat. Then we eat the fish. In short, plastic bags fuck us up.
For a class assignment calling for students to create an “action plan,” Michelle Lee and her group chose to focus on the environmental side of social justice by taking a look at plastic bags and how they effect the environment.

This is how the current petition to ban plastic bags in Saskatoon began.

The idea came from a member of the group who has connections with the city council of Thompson, Man., a city that just recently implemented a ban on plastic bags. Now, municipalities across Canada are making the same move.

Thompson’s ban was based on the one in Fort McMurray, Alta. Other places in Canada that have implemented the ban on plastic bags are Esquimalt, B.C., and many small towns in Ontario, such as Sioux Lookout.

Vancouver recently rejected a push to ban single-use plastic bags, though retailers there are voluntarily attempting to decrease the number of plastic bags distributed by 50 per cent by 2013.

“Obviously it works better for smaller towns, but I believe it is possible in cities,” said Lee.

Plastic bags are either restricted or completely banned in over a quarter of the world’s countries.

In the United States, cities and municipalities in California, North Carolina, Connecticut, Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii have fully banned the use of plastic bags. Meanwhile, Ireland has set a heavy tax on them.

The local petition has not yet been taken to city council. However, Lee hopes to present it by the end of March, once the research report has been compiled and there is more public awareness on the issue.

“Saskatoon has a really unique opportunity to be the first city in Saskatchewan to ban single-use plastic bags,” she said. “Many people see Saskatoon as a progressive city.”

Lee is unsure of the response from city council, but she anticipates resistance from the public and larger retailers.

But it is actually more profitable for companies to sell reusable bags than it is to give out single-use plastic bags. Companies can purchase bulk orders of reusable bags for about 25 cents per bag, and sell them for around a dollar. Even so, Lee expects larger companies, such as Wal-Mart and Safeway, will be more difficult to get on board.

The petition calls for the ban to be enforced through a bylaw that would entail financial penalties for stores that do not comply, with a grace period for people to prepare for the transition.

The ban would be on any kind of low-grade single-use plastic bags and some paper bags. Exemptions could be carved out for paper bags from liquor stores and from restaurants, as well as the prescription bags from pharmacies. High-grade plastic bags would be an exception as well, as they can be reused.

When asked about why the group chose to petition a ban on plastic bags instead of a tax, Lee explained that a tax does not solve the problem. Canadians use approximately nine to 15 billion low-grade plastic bags a year, of which only one to three per cent are recycled. The bags are petroleum-based, a non-reusable resource, and do not biodegrade over time. It can take up to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to begin to break down. Instead, plastic in the bags photodegrades – ultraviolet rays from the sun break down the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces that are toxic.

In addition, the pieces never leave the environment as they work into water sources, soil and the food chain. Studies have shown that bioaccumulation, suffocation, consumption and blockage of digestive systems are just some of the causes of death of up to 100,000 marine animals each year due to plastic.

As education students, Lee’s group wants to stress the chance to affect how future consumers think about bag usage. But whether a bylaw ultimately comes about or not, she says attitudes are already changing.

Saskatoon “is moving in the direction of using reusable bags as it is,” said Lee. “It is nearly impossible to go into a grocery store without seeing a rack of reusable bags for sale.”

Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf

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