Student-led petition calls on City of Winnipeg to ban plastic bags

A group of students at West Kildonan Collegiate launched a petition calling on Mayor Brian Bowman and city council to ban single-use plastic bags in Winnipeg.

Petition launched March 15 had nearly 1,200 signatures on Monday

West Kildonan Collegiate students (from left to right, Christina Tran, Destiny Boushie, Tatiana Schwenzer and Victor Selby) launched an online petition calling on the City of Winnipeg to ban single-use plastic bags. (Submitted by Victor Selby)

A group of students at West Kildonan Collegiate has launched a petition calling on Mayor Brian Bowman and city council to ban single-use plastic bags in Winnipeg.

The online petition was launched by four Grade 12 students in the Sustainable Living Academy of Manitoba on March 15 and by Monday afternoon it had almost 1,200 signatures.

Students Victor Selby, Tatiana Schwenzer, Christina Tran and Destiny Boushie were inspired by the recent example of Montreal, which implemented a plastic bag ban earlier this year, as well as recent comments from Bowman and Manitoba Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires in support of the idea.

"Our city's not that big and Montreal's already done it, they're a much bigger city than us and we think that we absolutely can use this and  try to make a difference," said Selby.

Other communities in Manitoba have already banned plastic bags, including Thompson, The Pas, Leaf Rapids and Snow Lake.

Plastic doesn't decompose in a landfill — instead it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, entering water systems and the food chain when it is ingested by animals.

After Montreal's ban went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, Squires tweeted, "Very good news for Montreal. Should Winnipeg add itself to the growing list of municipalities to ban these shopping bags? #somethingworthconsidering."

In an email statement on Monday, Squires praised the students' efforts. 

"Our government wants to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags in the province. We know that there are more than 160 million plastic bags going into Brady Landfill every year. For this reason, I have established [a] recycling task force, and their top priority is making recommendations on ways to reduce plastic pollution."

A spokesperson for Bowman said the mayor is open to discussing the idea of a province-wide ban.

"If the province ultimately considers a province-wide ban on such plastic bags, the Mayor has indicated he would be open to discussing it in coordination with the Association of Manitoba Municipalities," spokesperson Jeremy Davis wrote in an email.

Selby called Bowman's response a "fairly political answer" but said he would support expanding the ban to include the entire province.

Multi-Materials Stewardship Manitoba, which funds recycling programs for municipalities across the province, collects fees from companies that sell plastic and paper products in Manitoba, including major food and beverage corporations like Nestlé and Coca-Cola.

Spokesperson Sarah Wallace said MMSM doesn't think a ban on plastic bags is the answer, and banning bags could have other unintended consequences.

"Our recent consumer research in Manitoba showed that nine out of 10 people are reusing their plastic bags in some capacity in the home. If bags were banned, they would be purchasing bags from the store that are typically made out of a heavier plastic and they actually take longer to decompose in a landfill than these single-use plastic bags," she said.

Instead, she said the focus should be on educating consumers about ways they can reduce the number of plastic bags they throw away.

Wallace pointed out that many major retailers have plastic bag recycling depots in-store. Also, Winnipeg Harvest uses more than one million plastic bags every year to put together food hampers, and those bags are collected through the Bag it Forward program.

"So there are a number of options but it really comes down to the consumer, and that's where the education comes in," she said.

MMSM partners with Take Pride Winnipeg to collect plastic bags through schools, and last year collected 1.1 million bags from 161 schools. Take Pride Winnipeg executive director Tom Ethans has said he doesn't think a ban is necessary because the bags are recyclable.

Selby disagrees, pointing out that Canada recycles significantly less than other countries around the world.

"Our recycling system is really not equipped in any way to deal with plastic bags," he said.

The group plans to keep their petition going for a little while longer before presenting it to the city.

City officials have considered measures to crack down on plastic bag use at least twice within the last decade. In 2008, the Public Works committee rejected a proposal for a 10-cent levy on plastic bags.

In 2012, the Public Works committee received an administrative report recommending against a ban, saying it would force people who reuse plastic bags to go out and buy them, and thus defeat the purpose.