Council revisited the contentious issue of plastic bag usage in Whistler Tuesday (Feb. 22), asking staff to prepare a report looking at ways to reduce the estimated four million thin-film bags distributed in the resort annually.
“We need to put a timeline on this,” said Coun. Andrée Janyk. “Bags are polluting our environment, they are not recyclable. It’s plain and simple, the research is so clear … I cannot accept anything but (getting) rid of the plastic bags.”
The issue was first addressed by the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), which recommended a resort-wide plastic bag ban in a 2008 report to council. The Community Charter doesn’t give the RMOW authority to ban the use of plastic bags outright, but does allow for municipalities to regulate the type of shopping bags that retail businesses can distribute.
Since then, the RMOW has adopted a long-term sustainability plastics plan to reduce and eventually eliminate single-film bag usage in Whistler, enacted a voluntary plastic bag ban, worked to educate the community on the impacts of plastic bag usage in conjunction with AWARE and the community’s Grocery and Drug Store Alliance, developed a re-usable bag distribution program with local hoteliers and engaged in a six-month monitoring period to gauge the level of plastic bag usage in the resort.
While there are several examples of municipalities successfully removing plastic bags from their communities, Whistler faces some unique challenges because of the amount of visitors to the resort.
“When it comes down to practically dealing with the tourists day-to-day when they run in (to a grocery store) after skiing to pick up their snacks or meal for the evening, they’re not likely to be carrying a re-usable bag,” said Sue Adams, owner of The Grocery Store and member of The Grocery and Drug Store Alliance. “We’re absolutely into the idea of getting rid of plastic bags eventually … But for a number of our market owners, we’re concerned with the tourist experience.”
Several countries around the world, including Italy, Germany and Japan, have already instituted outright bans on plastic bags.
Educating residents, guests and retail employees on the benefits of reducing plastic bag usage has been a top priority for the Grocery and Drug Store Alliance, but AWARE president Claire Ruddy thinks awareness isn’t the most effective strategy.
“I think (local grocery stores) are still talking along the line of education, which is fine, but it doesn’t really change anything. If we just try to continually educate, there’s a limit to what we can achieve,” she said, noting the high turnover rate of local retail staff and the challenges associated with educating the 2.6 million annual visitors to the resort.
Recent monitoring by the RMOW found that despite a resort-wide awareness campaign, plastic bag usage in Whistler has only dropped one per cent in the past four years.
Council was initially divided on how to move forward on this issue. Coun. Jack Crompton introduced a motion that council amend a bylaw to regulate the usage of non-reusable bags throughout the resort, but retracted it after Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey asked for more time so staff could weight their options.
“We’d really appreciate some more time to do some more research, to work with our partners and come back with a more informed presentation around some of the impacts before we move to a regulatory and enforcement type approach,” he said.
Coun. Duane Jackson said the RMOW should look at the effect of all types of plastics on the environment before implementing any type of regulation.
As a result, council moved that municipal staff prepare another plastic bag report following consultation with retail store owners, community groups and environmental experts that would include recommendations for future regulation. A municipal report on garbage reduction strategies will come before council in May, but Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden wants to see a staff report on plastic bags before then.
“I’m aghast at the statistic of four million bags coming out of this community annually. That’s unacceptable,” she said. “Personally, I’m in favour of a ban on plastic bags. I think there’s ways of dealing with that and I’m looking forward to staff’s recommendations.”
B.C. non-profit Greener Footprints estimates that Canadians use between nine and 15 billion plastic shopping bags a year.