The Plastic Compromise

Squamish council takes a step backwards with recent decision not to ban plastic bags 

Kaileigh Bunting, Contributor 

With millions protesting in the streets for climate action it seems that, now more than ever, cities should be aiming to reduce the impact they have on the environment. It therefore came as a shock to hear that the District of Squamish, an idyllic outdoor mecca known for forward-thinking, recently voted against the outright ban of plastic bags. Instead, the council chose to impose a fee on each plastic bag (10 cents per bag) in hopes of reducing the number used overall. The Squamish Council argued that “banning plastic bags would have created a larger carbon footprint” as the number of paper bags used would likely increase—each of which has three times the carbon cost of each plastic bag. Despite the numbers lining up for the Squamish council, this decision seems to set the city behind the curve when it comes to proactive climate action. 

It is important to understand the impact reducing plastic waste has in comparison to that of reducing the all-encompassing carbon footprint. While it is important to reduce the overall carbon footprint of urban areas, it is also paramount to reduce the direct environmental impact constituents’ choices have on the surrounding environment. Paper bags are considered to have a higher carbon cost than plastic because it takes more energy and resources overall to produce one paper bag than a plastic one. According to the English Environmental Agency, a paper bag must be used at least three times to outweigh its plastic counterpart. This is the logic the city of Squamish has followed, as it now plans to charge 30 cents per paper bag and only 10 cents for a plastic bag. Does this cover the numerical cost of each bag on the environment? Yes, but it neglects to address the effects that single-use plastics such as plastic bags can have directly in the surrounding environment.   

Squamish is situated along the west coast, which means it is in close proximity to many water systems (the pacific ocean, rivers, lakes) which connecting ecosystems depend on. The chances of plastic entering those water systems increases, and can have detrimental effects on the ecosystems. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Office of Response and Restoration of Environmental Disasters, as plastic enters the ocean, they are carried by currents to central dynamic regions of the oceans (‘gyres’) where the plastic is then left to sit. Unlike a paper bag that only takes one month to decompose, a plastic bag will break into microplastics which can take over 500 years to breakdown. Not only is this microplastic accumulating in massive garbage islands in oceans around the globe, but it is also washing ashore on international lands and impacting ecosystems worldwide. From one plastic bag from the Walmart in Squamish to impacting the marine life of ecosystems internationally, this issue is much more complex than the Squamish Council has made it seem.  

It is because of this unseen impact of the plastic bag—which reaches far past its carbon footprint—that the Squamish Council’s decision against the ban of plastic bags may not have been the most proactive approach to lowering the city’s environmental impact. While the chosen option to charge for each bag is a step in the right direction, it’s not enough of an incentive to discourage the overall use of single-use products. After all, every single piece of plastic ever manufactured since 1907 still exists today. What will the planet look like in another 100 years if not a planet consumed by plastic? It is the responsibility of governing municipalities to take ownership of this plastic crisis and find more sustainable options for the future.   

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