Anti-plastic bag movement growing as residents adapt to new laws

The Canadian pioneer towns that first banned plastic bags are saying good riddance to the longtime retail staple that rolls through garbage-strewn streets like tumbleweed.

The Canadian pioneer towns that first banned plastic bags are saying good riddance to the longtime retail staple that rolls through garbage-strewn streets like tumbleweed.

Leaf Rapids, Man., and Huntingdon, Que., were among the first Canadian towns to banish plastic bags from city limits, and many merchants and town leaders say they don't miss them a bit.

Huntingdon, about 70 kilometres from Montreal, passed a bylaw banning plastic bags last Jan. 1.

Nearly four months later, Alain Fournier, general manager of the town's IGA grocery store, reported 82 per cent of his customers bring their own, reusable bags, while the other 18 per cent use paper.

"We're getting there, slow but sure," Fournier said. "At first, customers were not too happy with it. What we're hearing more is that it's convenient and they have fewer bags to carry."

People adjusting to ban in different ways

Leaf Rapids, in northern Manitoba, last year became the first municipality in Canada to ban plastic shopping bags. Mayor Ed Cherrier said a year later most people in the community of 600 forget they ever had them.

"You don't see them," he said. "It's cleaner. It's a much better environment."

But the adjustment can be more difficult for smaller stores. One storekeeper in Huntingdon, the town that made national news a few years ago for its curfew on teenagers, said the transition has been difficult.

"It's been a real pain in the ass," said the shopkeeper, who asked not to be named.

"Why pay huge amounts of money to those making the [new reusable bags]? I don't understand."

Some towns try voluntary ban measures

A small town in eastern Quebec is taking a different approach. Amqui plans to draft a voluntary pact urging environmental responsibility for the town, its residents and its stores.

Beginning this summer, Amqui retailers will place a small tax on plastic shopping bags.

"If people want them, they can still use them but we'll charge them extra if they still want to use plastic bags," said Mayor Gaétan Ruest, adding that a similar system in Ireland has reduced the number of plastic bags by more than 90 per cent.

Movement enjoys 'a real groundswell' of support

Manitoba Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard tabled a bill recently that would ban one-use plastic bags from checkout counters.

Gerrard put forth a similar private member's bill six months ago. While the proposed law again faces long odds of passing, Gerrard said the movement is growing.

"I think that what's happening is that there is a real groundswell for this, in Manitoba, and worldwide," said Gerrard, adding he wants to encourage the use of biodegradable bags.

Nova Scotia's liquor stores have vowed to phase out plastic bags by this fall, and Quebec's liquor stores announced plans to follow suit by the beginning of 2009.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said his province should also seriously consider following the example set by Nova Scotia.

Restrictions on the distribution of plastics bags have also been implemented in parts of the United States, Australia, Taiwan, and several countries in Africa.

Even China, which has been heavily criticized for its environmental practices, recently issued a directive to ban retailers from handing out free plastic bags by June 1.

Fournier said the trend toward banning plastic bags is growing fast. "At least we'll be able to remember we're one of the first to start it," the supermarket manager said.