Nfld. & Labrador

Banning the bag a great step, but it's a speck of N.L.'s plastic pollution, says researcher

Plastic bags will be banned come July 1, but a Memorial University researcher says fishing gear needs tackling to really reduce plastic in N.L.'s environment.

MUN's Max Liboiron says fishing gear is a much more significant problem

Dr. Max Liboiron is an assistant professor in Memorial University's department of geography and a renowned expert in plastic pollution. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Counting the amount of plastic littering the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador highlights the danger it poses to the environment, says one Memorial University researcher. 

And it comes from plastic fishing gear, not plastic retail bags, said Max Liboiron after the government announced its ban on retail plastic bags will start July 1.

"There's a lot of good that the bag ban will do, esthetic sort of things like the bag forest by Robin Hood landfill," Liboiron said. "It's pretty exciting" to be the second province in the country to ban the bag, she added.

This is the 'plastic forest' near the Robin Hood Bay dump in St. John's. (Submitted by Andrea Howard)

But she said you have to look at the "huge dataset" of shoreline studies in the province since the 1960s: of the 82 per cent of marine plastics, less than two per cent is plastic bags — and 36 per cent of it is fishing gear.

"When we open up fish and birds and seals and look in them for plastics we don't find plastic bags," but they do find gear. And Liboiron said just some, not all, is washed over by ocean currents.

She said Nain illustrates what a bag ban can do, as people say they see fewer plastic grocery bags in the water since the community banned the bags in 2009.

Yet bags still make up eight per cent of plastic on Nain's shoreline.

"When I'm up there, I don't see plastic carrier bags as much. I see other types of plastic bags — including a lot of the ones in the exemption," she said, referencing the garbage bags, bread bags, and other non-retail bags that don't fall under the provincial ban

Bits of fishing rope made of plastic litter a beach in Trinity Bay. (Jane Adey CBC)

Fishing gear and cigarettes

Like the studies indicating plastic fishing gear makes up the majority of this province's marine plastic pollution, Liboiron said plastic bags aren't one of the bigger categories of litter collected along highways either. 

"It's more cigarette waste — both butts and packaging." 

Growing up in the late '30s, '40s, even early '50s, I can certainly remember no such thing as plastic. - Barbara Dooley

Now that the plastic bag ban will come into effect, she said, it's time to move on to the complex issues of fishing gear and overall plastic packaging, with the province saying it is working on the latter. 

But the province's environment minister says the government isn't looking at targeting fishing gear right now.

"Right now we are targeting the retail plastic bag, and that's not saying that we're not going to expand out down the road," Derrick Bragg said. 

Inspiration from the past

As people across Newfoundland and Labrador look to reduce their own plastic use, Liboiron says people here are innovative.

"The nice thing about thinking about alternatives is that plastic bags, and plastic packaging in particular, has only really been around and mass-produced since the 1950s."

She said that means it's within living memory, like that of St. John's resident Barbara Dooley. 

"Growing up in the late '30s, '40s, even early '50s, I can certainly remember no such thing as plastic," said Dooley.

These reusable shopping bags at a Sobeys grocery store are one alternative to plastic that people can use. (Sobeys Regent St/Facebook)

Instead, people wrapped items in paper or wax paper, used brown paper shopping bags and boxes.

For example, Dooley said, if you wanted a block of cheese you'd ask for it at the grocery store, where it would be cut off and wrapped in paper. Leftover food would be put in a bowl or plate and covered with another plate. 

"I think industry is going to have to step up to the plate and not do so much packaging," she said. 

"Because packaging is terrible. I mean, sometimes you get something and it's three layers of different types of packaging."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show