Plastic's not so fantastic for green shoppers in Wawa

Posted By CONOR MIHELL, SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Sault St. Marie, ON

April 2009

According to the Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental research organization, humans around the globe produce upwards of five trillion plastic shopping, storage, lunch and garbage bags annually. The majority of these bags are used once and eventually disposed in a landfill, where it takes nearly 1,000 years for them to decompose.

It took a trip to the other side of the world to make Wawa resident Megan Romano appreciate just how excessive our obsession with plastic bags has become. Romano was visiting her parents in Metung, Australia, and was impressed by the community’s bylaw forbidding the use of plastic bags.

“You were expected to use a canvas bag,” said Romano. “That was just the way it was, and stores and shoppers accepted it. It made me realize there’s no reason why we have to be plastic bag hogs.”

Romano and the Wawa Healthy Earth Committee (HEC) launched a campaign in November 2007 to make the community more aware of the excessive use of plastic bags. Romano said the effort to get consumers thinking about reducing their use of plastic bags had much to do with eliminating the eyesore of “garbage bag trees” emanating from the Michipicoten Municipal Landfill just south of town.

“We were hoping to get consumers thinking of how many plastic bags they actually need,” she said. “Most people are just carrying food from the grocery store to their car. We wanted to get shoppers to ask themselves, do I really need that many plastic bags?”

Another key component of the campaign was to “train the customer service staff to ask if shoppers were okay without a plastic bag instead of just handing them out without thinking about it,” Romano said.

Almost all Wawa retailers reacted positively to the campaign, Romano said. A year and a half later, many Wawa retailers have C-initiated weekly and monthly prize raffles for shoppers who choose reusable cloth bags over disposable plastic.

S imilar efforts to eliminate plastic bags from the retail experience have been launched around the world. In 2007, the town of Leaf Rapids, Man., became the first North American community to legislate a ban on all single-use plastic shopping bags.

About the same time, San Francisco outlawed the use of plastic grocery bags.

And starting in June, Toronto is enforcing a mandatory five-cent fee for plastic shopping bags.

In January, Canadian grocery giant Loblaw Companies began charging shoppers five cents per plastic bag in its Toronto stores –a program that will include all of its flagship Loblaws stores across the country starting Earth Day, April 22.

In an interview with the CBC, Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston Jr. said results from five pilot projects suggest that charging a fee for plastic bags reduced usage by nearly 55 per cent.

Weston told CBC the proceeds from the sale of plastic bags would go towards covering the cost of the grocer’s plastic bag reduction program, sustainability projects and environmental charities.

He said consumers might also benefit from the initiative through lowered food prices.

Still, as Romano experienced in Australia, Canada and the U.S. are far behind the environmental scruples of other nations. Plastic bags have been blamed for everything from defacing the landscape to clogging storm drains and causing devastating floods–and have thus become subject to stiff legislation in many European, Asian and African countries.

Ireland began charging a 32-cent levy on plastic bags in 2002, resulting in a 90 percent decrease in usage and the equivalent to $18 million in funding for recycling projects. And China banned free handouts altogether in time for last summer’s Beijing Olympics.

Romano said HEC considered lobbying for a municipal ban on plastic shopping bags in Wawa, but decided against it because of the “excessive amount of red tape of setting up another law.”

Part of the challenge facing North American communities in attempting to establish antiplastic bag legislation is opposition from the powerful plastics lobby.

The manufacture and sale of plastic bags are estimated to contribute $500 million to the North American economy annually.

Furthermore, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association argues that conventional plastic shopping bags are completely recyclable.

Worldwatch Institute statistics, however, suggest that only 0.6 percent of plastic bags are actually recycled.

Plastic bags have been a ubiquitous part of Western culture since the 1950s, when the first sandwich “baggies” were made. Plastic garbage bags became common in the late 1960s, and supermarkets began replacing paper with plastic shopping bags in the 1970s.