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Bags and the Biosphere

by John Platenius, Tofino


Last week I got my-self two pairs of shoes and a swanky new set of sunglasses. While one of the pair's of shoes is a bit too big and the sunglasses aren't quite my style, I'm very impressed with the price: free. These new additions to my wardrobe are part of a growing fad: washed up plastic on the beach.

The last time you took a walk on one of Tofino's beaches, did you notice an incredible amount of plastic crap lying around? Have a look the next time you're out on Long Beach or some other remote sandy beach in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Some kid's broken blue shovel, a sun-bleached running shoe, half an orange crab buoy and mangled red milk crate. Throw in a few Styrofoam bits and a bunch of algae-encrusted rope and you'll likely have walked for 2 or 3 minutes.

This is the place where we're supposed to be promoting "truly sustainable local communities and economies, while protecting the environment for future generations." And here's where we get to the paradox. Like all places in the world, talking about living sustainably in Tofino is easy, but it only takes a walk on the beach to realize that the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve and the rest of the world have a long way to go.

I know it sounds like I'm whining here, and I guess in a way I am. But don't get me wrong - I buy my fair share of plastic crap. I'm stuck in the same pattern of consumption and the ensuing waste that almost everyone else in the developed world is trapped in. My son begs for plastic toys every time we're in a store, and I give in every once in a while. I just finished eating my soup out of a Styrofoam container. And as I'm sitting here typing away on my brand new (mostly plastic) computer, I'm thinking that it will be obsolete in 2 or 3 years. One can't help but wonder, "How are we ever going to break out of this caustic cycle of buying and trashing plastic crap?"

I'm certainly not the best person to answer this question, but the David Suzuki Foundation has a great idea: Sustainability within a Generation. The basic idea behind the concept is simple: Think about the long-term (30 years) but start taking action now. One really easy way to take action now is to curb our increasing trend of buying and throwing out plastic.

One of the glaring indicators of all the challenges ahead are the frayed plastic grocery bags washed up on our beaches and choking our waterways. So here's a thought to start taking some action in the short-term: Well over 500 billion plastic bags are used every year. Now I know it's really hard to remember to bring a bag to the grocery store. I think about this stuff a lot, and I probably remember to bring bags about 5% of the time. But think about it - 500 billion bags a year! And over 100 billion of these are used and discarded in Canada and the US.

One idea that a friend of mine suggested is to put a big sac of plastic bags in the trunk of your car or under your seat. This way the next time you find yourself at the grocery store without a bag, you can grab a few to re-use. What's the worst thing that will happen? At the very least you'll reduce the clutter of all those old plastic grocery bags stuffed under your. And you might even take pride in thinking that if everyone in Canada and the US managed to do this 5% of the time, there would be 5 billion fewer plastic bags.

Cheap plastic bags are an historical quirk. They didn't exist thirty years ago, and they simply can't exist in the same numbers for much longer. The reason for this, funny as it sounds, is that plastic bags are organic. They are made from an organic compound called HDPE (high density polyethylene). This is a fancy way to say that plastic bags are made from petroleum products: oil, natural gas or coal. As petroleum becomes more valuable - and there is no arguing that it will - we will have to rethink the convenience of carting away our groceries in such a costly container.
So for the long-term perspective, we need to start acting like a smart-thinking country that values our natural resources. We need to start lobbying the government to implement a significant surcharge for using plastic bags. I'm not talking about the $0.05/bag that some stores are currently charging - I'm talking about $1.00 or $1.50 per bag, at least. This charge just makes plain economic sense. The true cost of making and then throwing away or recycling a plastic bag is probably somewhere in that range. (Only about 2% of those 500 billion bags are recycled, and this process costs a lot of energy while producing a significant amount of carbon emissions - but that's another story.)

This plastic paradigm shift has to happen at a provincial or federal level. If one store is bold, and decides to implement a plastic tax without a government mandated scheme, it would be entrepreneurial suicide. I'm starting my lobbying campaign for an expensive plastic bag tax, and looking forward to 20 years from now when plastic bag costs trigger cross border shopping sprees between BC and Alberta, because one of the provinces has cheaper plastic bags.

So I'm going to write a few letters, and talk to a few people. I'm going to keep walking the beaches for inspiration. Maybe I'll find a complete collection of what just might be the world's next biggest fashion craze: found plastic wardrobes.

John Platenius is the Director of Programs and Development at the Tofino Botanical Gardens Foundation.

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