Leaf Rapids led the way: Manitoba town was 1st in North America to ban plastic bags 15 years ago
'The response from it was pretty overwhelming. Everybody was interested,' says former town administrator
Bond Ryan knew he had a good idea but didn't realize he was on the threshold of a movement that would soon sweep through cities and towns across the continent.
"Probably one of the best things I've ever done in life," said Ryan, who was Leaf Rapids' town administrator at the time. "Looking back, I can say this is something I done, or I helped do, and saw the benefits of it right away."
The ban came with a steep $1,000 fine for any store that breached it. It also came with a lot of attention.
The town, with a population then of about 540, was suddenly in a global spotlight. Ryan, who spearheaded the ban and wrote the bylaw, was fielding all of the questions.
"I did interviews worldwide, basically. I did interviews in Germany even, and Australia. All over," he said.
He also had governments asking about the pros and cons and the pushback.
"The response from it was pretty overwhelming. Everybody was interested," he said.
50,000 bags per year
As for resistance? There was very little, said Ryan.
Leaf Rapids is a community that prides itself on its pristine northern environment along the Churchill River, about 750 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. But in the years leading up to the bylaw, it was clear something had to be done, Ryan said.
Bags were blowing into the river, snagging in brush, getting caught in trees and gathering in windblown corners around town.
Despite its small population, Leaf Rapids saw some 50,000 plastic retail bags being used every year, Ryan said.
In 2006, the town forced retailers to charge three cents on each plastic bag used by customers. That helped cut usage by about half but the bags were still a nuisance — esthetically and financially.
"The town was spending a pile of money on cleanup, and the bags were a big part of it," Ryan said.
Money was tight for Leaf Rapids, which had seen its main employer — the Ruttan copper-zinc mine — close in 2002. The population collapsed by more than half, from about 1,310 in 2001.
Ryan, originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, had moved to Leaf Rapids to work in the mining industry. He later moved into firefighting and then town administration.
While looking for practical and prudent ways to deal with its bag dilemma, the town was approached by Instore Products, an Ontario-based company that creates shopping products — carts, reusable bags and bins. They offered 5,000 bags to distribute around town to get everyone started.
Ryan pitched the idea and convinced local businesses it was bad for their image to have their logo on littered bags. He researched bans in a couple of other countries — using Ireland as a template for his own — and before long "everybody was on board," he said.
Not a single fine has ever been handed out and the results were almost immediate, Ryan said, describing how clean the town became and the pride that was restored.
The town of Huntingdon, Que., southwest of Montreal, followed with its own ban on Jan. 1, 2008. Since then, cities in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick have adopted one.
"I'm right proud of it, especially because I started it," said Ryan. He now lives back in his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where the entire province banned the distribution of retail plastic bags in October 2020.
"I've got a province behind me, basically. They don't know it, but they are."
Or maybe they do know it — at least some.
"I run into people once in a while and they say, 'Oh, that's the guy who forced us to use bags.' But there's never no conflict," Ryan said.
If people talk about the negatives, he dishes the positives. "There's usually not much of an argument because it is a good thing."
Lack of action in Manitoba: Green Action Centre
Canada has promised a ban on a handful of single-use plastic items, including checkout bags, six-pack rings, cutlery and straws. It was supposed to happen by the end of 2021, but the timeline is now the end of 2022.
That slow movement by the federal government is disappointing to environmental groups like Winnipeg's Green Action Centre.
Even more aggravating, though, is that Manitoba's largest city, Winnipeg, still has no ban and few other initiatives, said Green Action's Colleen Ans.
"It is definitely frustrating to see how behind areas like ours are," she said.
"There's a lot of programs that have been working successfully in smaller municipalities and communities that it's just honestly mind-blowing and puzzling why we don't have them here."
It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment, according to the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity.
"So every single piece of plastic that's ever been made is still on the Earth today," said Ans.
She acknowledges that some reusable bags are still made of plastic, while producing cloth bags requires an energy-expensive process. But they are designed to be used many times over, reducing the number of single-use bags.
"Each product has a carbon footprint, no matter what. Using it as much as you can to extend the lifecycle and make your product last is what we advocate for," she said, applauding Leaf Rapids for setting an example.
"As one person, you think you can't really do all that much, or your efforts aren't going that far," she said.
"But when you band together as a group of small people or a community, that's really where you see change."