Rightly or wrongly, single use plastic bags have become a symbol of waste and an easy target for people concerned with all things plastic. That’s not to say single use plastic bags don’t have an impact on the environment, our health and our budgets; they clearly do, but are just not the biggest, nor the most urgent. On the other hand, perhaps the bag issue is the little butterfly that flaps its wings and leads to big changes. Stranger things have happened.
To have any bigger impact though, we can’t take the approach McDonald’s took in the late 1980s. Swaying due to repeated efforts by environmental groups McDonald’s was forced to change from paper packaging that destroys forests, to Styrofoam container “clamshells.” Shortly after, they became a target for the clamshell because it contributed to the ozone hole and the fact that it didn’t biodegrade. In 1990, they switched to a mixed material of paper and plastic to appease the critics, but soon after became target again because it couldn’t be recycled. How do we avoid the same revolving critiques and move toward bigger changes?
At the Centre, we help communities create innovative robust approaches to address big decisions. These same tools and skills may be useful to help move Whistler through this lesser, yet potentially divisive and very time-consuming, plastic bag issue.
An innovative approach would first envision what qualities the “better” bag would have if it were truly sustainable and contributing to Whistler’s success, and second, determine the best steps to get there. We need to have something to aim at before we fire.
Based on the dialogue to date, a “better” bag/container in Whistler would likely be one that uses very little materials, is made from recycled materials or recycled organic natural fibres/polymer, is likely re-useable at least once, does not have compounds build up in nature, doesn’t lead to the loss of ecosystems through degradation or negative health impacts on the people that make them or use them. People need to value the bag and it has to be available when people need it most to carry items. While we are at it, the bag needs to support the Whistler brand, helping to put more heads in beds. All of today’s bag options; plastic, paper or reusable fall short of this description, none is ideal.
With a “better” bag now somewhat defined, however, we should be able to quickly figure out how each of today’s plastic, paper or cotton bags could be the “better” bag. More importantly what policy, if any can support all these innovations? Improvements might mean major reductions in bag use, an improved plastic bag recycling system and littering control for plastic bags. Paper bag opportunities might include buying 100 per cent recycled content bags manufactured using renewable energy. Cotton bag prices could be reduced through a sharing system and made from organic cotton, or better yet made from old clothing, sheets or linens. Perhaps all bags should have a Whistler logo on it as some have suggested. Through this process, we may actually find that certain types of bags have no more improvement opportunities toward the “better” bag. These virtual dead end approaches should be dropped for options with more potential.
We all have the knowledge and know how to take the right path forward; we just need to apply a strategic lens so that we end up with a long term solution that addresses a multitude of issues so we can avoid the McDonald’s trap. Better yet, going through this exercise will help us develop the skills to apply this type of innovative approach in all aspects of community life. Going through this exercise will ultimately help us to build an even more successful and sustainable Whistler.
Sustainability planner – Centre for Sustainability Whistler