With spring weather truly upon most of the country now, and summer just around the corner, there are unlimited options to get outdoors and enjoy ourselves. Living in Ottawa, I look forward to the myriad festivals, fairs and celebrations that run from May through the early fall; however, the waste generated by thousands of people passing through these sites each day of the event does cause me some concern. In the past few years many of these events have initiated environmentally-friendly procedures, largely based around biodegradable plastics. I could feel better with the knowledge that all those disposable plastic cups were being collected so that they wouldn’t end up in a landfill. I learned in a recent news article by the CBC that most of these initiatives haven’t performed as expected, because Ottawa doesn’t have a municipal composting facility capable of handling this waste stream.
The current Nature Canada quick poll asks, “Do you think provincial or state governments should ban the use of plastic bags?” The majority of respondents say yes, getting rid of these bags is essential. In addition to the concerns for wildlife ingesting plastic products or becoming inescapably entangled in them, the visual pollution is an aspect I think we can all relate to: “I am sick of seeing plastic bags hanging in trees, on fences, plugging sewer drains,” writes one subscriber. Another sums it up: “There isn't one positive thing that can be said about plastic bags and bottles!”
Is it true that there are no positive points to plastics? What about those unexpected errands on the way home from work or after eating a meal out? I know that I don’t always carry a canvas shopping bag with me. Even those who might support a plastic bag ban recognize the convenience of the product: “As convenient as I think plastic bags and bottles are, I think we need to move towards more re-usable rather than disposable packaging in general. It's hard to buy groceries without plastic packaging or containers.” There are also those who reuse these products in various ways, such as the member who says, “If the stores stop giving them to me with my purchases, I would be forced to buy them. If their sale were to be outlawed, what the heck would I use to line my garbage cans, carry out my compost and recycling, pick up the dog's poop?”
Are biodegradable products a part of the answer, then? Some members think so: “There are compostable 'plastic' bags that could be used instead for trash. These would allow items in landfills to biodegrade, contributing to solving part of our waste disposal problem.” Another response reads, “They've proven to be problematic, in many ways. Biodegradable plastic and reusable bags are the way to go. If they can't be completely banned, then there should be a recycling program in place.” At first glance, biodegradable plastics seem like a great idea – they contain starch fibres that will break down once they’re disposed. Deeper digging, though, has shown me that not all biodegradable plastics are made equal. Some are made from a combination of petroleum products and plant materials that will only partially decompose. Most require very specific conditions in order to break down; a landfill or home composter won’t work, and the bags will persist in the environment just like any other. Finally, tossing these biodegradable bags in your recycling actually ends up contaminating the recycling stream since they aren’t true plastics!
The best solution to the problem of plastic waste may be the most fundamental: reducing its use. Many respondents choose not to use plastic - “Complete ban, use recycled paper bags instead. Every time I go to the quick shop I refuse plastic bags and always tell the clerk, no thanks save the wildlife, and when they smile or laugh, I tell them why!” - and advocate for reusable containers - “Many plastic bags end up littering the roadside and are an eyesore. Canadians spend far too much money on bottled water instead of carrying their own recyclable stainless steel bottle. Let's reduce the production of unnecessary plastics.” To that end, Loblaws and its affiliated stores have recently started charging consumers for plastic bags, and Ikea Canada will be completely removing plastic shopping bags from their stores later this year.
We should all be able to enjoy the outdoors in whatever way we choose, but we should also be conscious of the impacts our activities have. This summer, I know I’ll be heading out with my stainless steel water bottle, filled from the tap, and my reusable bamboo flatware in tow, hoping to lighten my eco-footprint while following the festival season.