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The ‘existential threat’ in our trash

City council to vote on a new bylaw that looks to ban plastic
shopping bags and Styrofoam takeout containers

Re : Plenish, in the Ritchie neighbourhood, sells anything from toothpaste to glass cleaner without plastic packaging. (Jack Farrell)

By Jack Farrell

NEW BYLAW proposed as part of Edmonton’s “25-Year Waste Strategy” is looking to ban or limit single-use items such as plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam takeout containers.

Although the regulations have not been finalized, a report that city council discussed at a recent utility committee meeting states that plastic bags and Styrofoam takeout containers would be banned entirely and additional fees would be placed on the purchase price of paper bags and reusable bags.

Revenue from those additional fees would go directly to businesses. The reason for this, Christina Hodgson, a lawyer for the city, explained during the March 25 committee meeting, is that Edmonton is “very limited in not being able to do anything beyond allowing the business to just collect the fee.” If the City collected the revenue it could be considered an “illegal tax.”

According to the report presented to the committee, such single-use items as plastic cutlery will not be banned, but restaurants will only be able to provide them if a customer asks. Restaurants may also be required to accept reusable cups brought by customers for dine-in and takeout orders.

The report states that an estimated 450 million single-use items are thrown out in Edmonton every year. The estimate includes disposable cups, shopping bags, utensils, straws, and takeout containers made of “paper, plastic, bamboo and other materials.”

The report presented to the Utility Committee states that the City aims to reduce the amount of single-use items used by 20 per cent in the first four years. (Graphic taken from the report.

Mixed reactions from local businesses

Meghann Law, co-owner of Re : Plenish, a store in Ritchie where customers fill their own containers with the products for sale, says the proposed bylaw is “a great change.”

“The idea of reducing waste and taking actionable steps towards that, we love that. Definitely support it.”

Law says that people’s reliance on single-use items is something that can’t be ignored.

“It’s an existential threat. We are running out of space. We, ourselves, as people, are sick. There’s plastic in our blood and there’s plastic in our oceans and there’s plastic in our newborn babies.”

Omar Najjar, owner of the restaurant Shish Shawarma in Oliver says that the proposed bylaw is “just another icing on the cake” for his business.

“The government is not making it any easier for us tax-wise [or] food cost-wise.”

Najjar says he has been looking at different options to replace Styrofoam takeout containers but “the cost is quite a bit higher.”

“That affects the overall food cost and, as it is, we’re going to have to change prices. You change the price and customers start to complain. I don’t know what to do.”

Guaranteed exemptions

During the March 25 utility committee meeting, councillors and city administration discussed some possible exemptions to the single-use item regulations.

All Alberta Health Services facilities would be exempt from the bylaw, as some single-use plastics are necessary to ensure sterility. Establishments with food handling permits from AHS are also required to only offer single-use items as a current condition of their permit.

As well, City administration recommended that some entertainment venues such as arenas, stadiums, movie theatres and live music venues be exempt from the proposed regulation of reusable cups.

Ottawa to regulate single-use plastics

Edmonton’s proposed ban on two single-use items comes just months after the federal government announced it would  propose “single-use plastics prohibition regulations.” If approved, the prohibition will stop the manufacture, import and sale of plastic bags, stir sticks, cutlery and more.

The federal regulations have not been finalized or approved, but a news release from Dec. 21 says the federal government intends “to finalize these regulations and bring the ban into force as quickly as possible and as early as late 2022.”

Why ban these items now?

Governments are starting to take action to reduce the use of plastic as the full life cycle of the material has become better understood by scientists.

In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) released a report called Plastic and Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, in which they say “roughly two-thirds of all plastic ever produced has been released into the environment and remains there in some form – as debris in the oceans, as micro- or nanoparticles in air and agricultural soils, as microfibers in water supplies, or as microparticles in the human body.”

Recently, Dutch scientists found microplastics in human blood for the first time. Other studies have found that microplastics can enter the body through air pollution, plastic water bottles and takeout containers.

But plastic has never been found in human blood – until now.

The CIEL report states that successful initiatives to reduce plastic pollution include “legal bans of plastic bags and bans of single-use plastic products, zero-waste cities initiatives.” 

City council is scheduled to vote on the proposed bylaw April 4. If council approves it, city administration has recommended that the new rules not come into effect for one year, to give businesses and non-profit organizations enough time to make the transition.

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