If Whitehorse banned plastic bags tomorrow, what would you do?
Would you stop shopping? Would you stage a protest at city hall? Would you take the city to court for robbing you of your God-given right to accumulate indestructible “white pollution”? (Would you slap a shopkeeper with Swiss chard?)
No, I would bet my children’s education funds that you would do none of those. Instead, you would make sure the trunk of your car was perpetually stocked with cloth bags, cardboard boxes or a bagful of used plastic bags.
I have faith that all of us would buck up and endure. We might even be surprised by our resourcefulness under such stressful conditions.
And the grocery store chains — would they survive such meddling with the universal corporate tradition of handing out free plastic bags for the sake of the customer’s convenience?
I suspect they would.
Perhaps they would begin making available some of the hundreds of cardboard boxes that they flatten and toss into the dumpster every week.
Maybe they would start keeping a rack full of reusable bags near the cash register for their customers to buy, like most grocery stores do already.
City councillor Jan Stick had a good idea when she proposed banning plastic bags, which she called “white pollution.
“As long as plastic bags are made available, people are going to use them,” Stick told council in March.
But her maverick reputation evaporated in September when she told council she was amending her proposal, or should I say watering down her idea to the point of drowning it.
Now she wants plastic bags to remain available and for consumers to be penalized for using them, a popular scheme in municipalities and countries around the world, but one that could take years to implement because Whitehorse must rely on some cumbersome territorial legislation in order to activate the tax.
When it finally does take effect, it may actually solve the “white pollution” problem in our city — that is, if we are talking about litter.
But it will do little to solve the problem of plastic in our landfill, as my colleague Lewis Rifkind pointed out in his Green Spaces column in these pages.
As Rifkind points out, plastic bags are recyclable, but many kinds of plastic, including polysterene (Styrofoam), are not.
So why not ban those?
But banning plastic bags is the global trend — even China is contemplating it, and levies are equally popular.
Levies on plastic bags have been reported by some countries and municipalities around the world to have had an effect.
Australia reported last week that a four-week trial in four of its supermarkets resulted in a 79 per cent reduction in plastic bag distribution when customers were levied just 10 cents.
Ireland too has reported that its levy has changed consumer behaviour significantly.
Ireland introduced a 15-cent tax on single-use plastic bags in 2002 and saw a 94 per cent decrease in their use within weeks.
But more recent reports from Ireland show the levy has resulted in more people buying the thicker plastic bags, which shops are promoting as reusable for single usage, even picking up dog poop.
Major metropolises, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, have also issued total bans on single-use plastic shopping bags.
In Canada, Leaf Rapids, Manitoba (population: 550), became in April 2007, the first municipality in Canada to institute a ban, one so tough it includes a $1,000-a-day fine for lawbreakers.
Now bigger cities, including Vancouver, are considering it too.
But it is the Third World that has been the gutsiest opponent of the plastic bag.
Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Bangladesh have all banned the thin plastic shopping bag.
The United Nations estimates that only 10 per cent of garbage in Africa makes it to dumps. The other 90 per cent is strewn around neighbourhoods or burned.
Dubbed “white tumbleweed” in poor countries, plastic bag litter is a scourge in the Third World, where it clogs sewage drains, helping spread disease, and where cows and other livestock choke to death on them.
Flapping from tree branches and rolling down city streets, they don’t do much for tourism either.
Nigeria and India will have to be more creative to stop plastic bag proliferation.
In Nigeria, the only safe drinking water is distributed in thin plastic bags. In India, almost all beverages served up by street vendors are poured into them.
Needless to say, plastic bags are a much bigger dilemma in poor countries, where there is almost no recycling and where Western trends like single-use plastic shopping bags, which have replaced baskets and banana leaves, can be accepted as an inevitable consequence of modernization.
At least some Third World governments recognize that only a ban will solve the problem.
In Whitehorse, on the other hand, where our surroundings don’t appear to be under immediate threat, protecting the environment can take a backseat to diplomacy.