NL·Waves of Change

Today the NLC bids goodbye to plastic bags. What's next?

One of N.L.'s biggest retailers is making a change, and possibly paving the way for more action on the issue of single-use plastic bags.

One of N.L.'s biggest retailers making big statement against single-use plastics

An endangered species in Newfoundland and Labrador as of Thursday morning: the now discontinued plastic liquor bag.

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group

The poster child for single-use plastic waste has taken another hit in Newfoundland and Labrador, but it's unclear what the next step is to combat the overall environmental problem.

As of Thursday morning, the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation is no longer offering plastic bags in its stores. Instead, customers have the choice of free paper bags, reusable ones for 99 cents, or bringing their own.

It was a decision made, in part, because customers asked for it, and a move the NLC says has been welcomed since first announced in September.

"We have received nothing but positive feedback," said Wally Dicks, the NLC's chief operating officer.

"Most customers are happy and think we're doing the right thing. Even our suppliers have said the same thing."

The bag ban comes on the heels of a wave of criticism about excessive cannabis packaging. While the NLC regulates marijuana in the province, its packaging is federally mandated by Health Canada, and cannabis companies such as Canopy Growth have said that issue is a work in progress.

The NLC encourages people to either buy its reusable bags for 99 cents or bring their own from now on. Paper bags will also continue to be available. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Conversation changer

After today, there may still be a few liquor store plastic bags in circulation, said Dicks, as stores rid themselves of remaining inventory. Apart from New Brunswick and British Columbia, other provinces' liquor corporations have already discontinued plastic bags.

"They're lagging behind the rest of the country, but at least they've implemented it," said Tony Walker, a professor at Dalhousie University and expert in plastic pollution.

The province calculates plastic bags actually make up just 0.2 per cent of all annually generated waste in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"In terms of quantity, it's tiny. Same could be said for straws, which were bashed this year as well," said Walker, adding the symbolism of banning bags, and its ability to be a conversation starter, are the bigger environmental wins.

"What I see coming out of this in terms of positive action, is it probably changes people's interaction now with other types of single-use plastics."

To ban, or not to ban

The debate over a provincewide plastic bag ban has dragged on in the public arena for years, with the issue lobbed back and forth between levels of government and organizations to a tedious and confusing degree.

Prior to the NLC's move, some private retailers — like those on Fogo Island — made the leap to a ban within their own stores. Likewise, select municipalities such as Cartwright and Nain have outlawed them within their respective jurisdictions.

The Plastics Industry Association and The Canadian Federation of Independent Business have opposed a provincial ban. Those groups, along with others such as the Retail Council of Canada and Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, met with government departments in September to discuss plastic bags.

Out of that meeting, the Department of Environment told CBC in a statement, "Industry has indicated a willingness to work with the province on a plan to significantly reduce plastic bags."

The statement made no mention of an outright ban.

Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island is moving to become the first Canadian province to ban the bags at a provincial level, and national bans have worked overseas — in wide swaths of Europe and even in populous polluters like China.

While Walker said he is in favour of some sort of ban or tax on bags in Canada, he cautioned that top-down federal regulatory framework is challenging in this country, where waste management is most often a municipal issue and has to cater to diverse needs and demographics.

"I think the only thing that Canada can do at the federal level is to maybe facilitate, and make it possible for municipalities to have some kind of system in place," he said.

"I'm envisioning a future whereby the federal government, and the different provinces, can help municipalities get on board with some sort of standardized approach."

Plastic bags from the Wild Cove landfill near Corner Brook litter the wooded areas around the dump in this July photo. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

A five-pence success

There are other options to reduce bag consumption besides an outright ban. Some countries rely on levies or taxes: England introduced a five-pence consumer charge for bags in 2015, and its government reported nine billion fewer bags have since been sold as a result.

England's charge is not a tax, and while its government asks retailers to donate the collected fees to a good cause, there's no mechanism forcing them to do so.

While a plastic tax can be hard for citizens to stomach, Walker said, if governments make it transparent that monies collected are going toward a good cause, such as environmental outreach. it can make the extra cost much more publicly palatable.

The NLC told CBC the 99-cent price tag for its reusable bags is just cost-recovery for the product, with nothing leftover. The corporation does expect to save $180,000 a year by no longer supplying plastic bags.

Dalhousie University professor Tony Walker says reusable bags trump plastic ones since reusable materials will break down eventually, while plastic has an extremely long lifespan. (Submitted)

What's a shopper to do?

If by now you're overwhelmed at the thought of your next grocery store run, add this into the mix: it isn't even clear whether the environmental footprint of reusable bags trumps that of a single-use plastic one. 

An oft-cited British study — utilizing data from 2006 — declared a cotton bag has to be reused 131 times in order to offset its carbon footprint, which contributes to climate change: think of the production put into growing cotton, or the facilities needed to weave the fabric. By the same logic, a paper bag should be reused three times.

Walker maintained reusable bags remain the better choice, as what studies like that one fail to consider is the environmental cost of plastic's unfortunately immortal qualities. 

"Cotton, if there's no print or inks on it, it could be composted," he said. "Paper, at the end of its useful life, has very few, if any, environmental impacts. But we know that plastic, if mismanaged and gets into environment, has long lasting impacts."

In the face of government inaction, a hodgepodge of retailer bans and even personal plastic fatigue, Walker maintained consumers are still able to affect change, and the NLC's move is proof of that power.

There's no one solution, no one silver bullet for this problem.- Tony Walker

"We do have a choice. We can choose to just stick to the status quo, and the massive convenience brought about by plastics and just carry on as normal, or in the face of overwhelming evidence on this, is to make a personal choice. and that can be bringing your reusable bag," he said.

"There's no one solution, no one silver bullet for this problem. But I think all kinds of solutions working together will have a positive impact."

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Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is the producer and host of Atlantic Voice, a CBC Radio 1 show showcasing documentaries and storytelling from the east coast. She is based out of CBC Corner Brook.