Local environmental activists won a victory on January 12 when the city voted to look into the feasibility of making Calgary plastic bag-free by 2010.
City council unanimously approved Ald. John Mar’s request for a study to examine how Calgary can join the growing international movement diverting plastic bags from landfills. Depending on what’s decided, Calgary could follow Toronto’s lead in charging consumers mandatory fees for grocery and shopping bags, or, follow San Francisco’s lead and issue an all-out bag ban. “We are throwing away millions upon millions of these bags into our landfill,” says Mar. “[It] costs Calgarians money, and it has a huge environmental [impact] as well.” However, council’s support for the study has been a call to arms for plastic proponents, from pro-bag business groups to what the local press is portraying as a formidable dog-walkers’ lobby.
“Without plastic bags, more than 12,000 metric tonnes of dog dung stays on the ground,” the Calgary Sun pointed out on its January 11 editorial page.
Since San Francisco successfully banned bags last spring, retailers elsewhere who believe their profits are wrapped up in plastic have allied with plastics producers to fight fees and bans. They promote bag recycling as an alternative.
When Seattle city council approved a fee on single-use bags last year, the American Chemistry Council responded by forming its Stop the Seattle Bag Tax coalition, organizing a petition to force the motion to a public vote. Seattle killed the fee, joining Phoenix, Dallas, New York and Chicago in pushing for bag recycling.
The cities are typically advised by Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA), an outreach arm of the American Chemistry Council advocating “the responsible use, reuse, recycling and disposal of plastic bags.” Canada’s plastics association has a similar branch called Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC).
Already in Calgary, a nascent bag lobby is organizing in response to Mar’s motion. “In this current economic climate, a ban or charge on bags is only going to increase costs for houses and businesses,” says Ben Brunnen, manager of policy research for the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. Citing news articles debunking plastic bag alternatives, he urges council to “proceed with caution on the issue.”
Calgary business owner and Progressive Group for Independent Business national president Steve Chapman says Mar’s study will only waste city resources. “That’s going to take someone 40 to 60 hours of work,” says Chapman, who ran against Mar in the 2007 civic election. “I just think there are better ways to deal with this instead of getting your name splashed around the paper.”
Ald. Brian Pincott, however, says the study is a good idea. “When I look at the costs that are borne by every Calgarian for the use of these plastic bags, I think we have a responsibility... to look at this, and that’s quite frankly the role of government,” he says.
Ask the people of the tiny town of Rossland, B.C. and they’ll likely agree. Last year, the town council pushed through a motion promoting a bag-free Rossland, and it took just one year for the community of 3,300 to cut its bag use by 75 per cent. Tracey Saxby, who led the initiative, is now working with 10 other communities in B.C. and Alberta — including Canmore, Nelson, Revelstoke and Rocky Mountain House — to do the same thing. She says that while some retailers were reluctant at the start, most would now support an all-out bag ban.
“Plastic bags are a huge expense,” says Saxby. “They’re not free for the retailers, they’re not free for consumers, they’re not free for the municipalities and they’re definitely not free for the environment.”
And what about dog-walkers? Saxby says product packaging like bread bags work just fine. “I think it’s a change that is going to happen,” she says. “Whether people fight it or not is up to them.”