Nova Scotia

How a small N.S. town is saving the ocean, 1 piece of plastic at a time

From plastic bags and water bottles to shampoo bottles and takeout containers, Lunenburg, N.S., is trying to reduce the consumption of plastics.

Residents and business owners have banded together to reduce consumption of single-use plastics

Through community programs and individual actions, residents and business owners are trying to reduce consumption of single-use plastics in Lunenburg, N.S. (Gary Yim/Shutterstock)

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.    

Walking through historic Lunenburg, N.S., there are countless telltale signs of residents' affection for the ocean that surrounds them: whale door knockers, fish weather vanes, decorative buoys and, of course, sailing ship and seagull motifs.

But some residents worry the marine environment that Nova Scotia is known for in this UNESCO tourist mecca is far from pristine.

Ariel Smith of the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation said it's estimated that the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic goes into the world's oceans every minute — something she calls "disturbing."

Ariel Smith is the marine projects co-ordinator with the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation. (CBC)

"Taking a plastic bag from a grocery store to your house really is only 15 minutes. So it has a lifespan of maybe half an hour," Smith said. "And so that plastic bag, although we only need it for such a short period of time, it's going to last in the environment for centuries. It's going to outlive us all."

"But I think as a community, in Lunenburg and Lunenburg County and Nova Scotia, I'm optimistic of what we can do in our small way to influence the bigger picture," Smith said.

Residents and business owners have banded together to reduce distribution of single-use plastics such as disposable coffee cups, water bottles and the ubiquitous plastic bag.

Inside the Lunenburg Makery, a shop and craft space, Greg Crossman swiftly sews stitches along the handle of a fabric bag. 

Shoppers in Lunenburg are encouraged to take a cloth bag and return it to a participating store after they're done using it. (CBC)

"I think I've made about 45. It's been fun. I'm the bag man. What can I say?" he says over the thrum of sewing machines.

Crossman volunteers his time to make Boomerang bags — bags created from donated fabric that are distributed to local businesses for customers to use in place of plastic bags. The idea is that shoppers will return the Boomerang bags to participating stores after they're done with them.

The program has proven so popular that stores are on the waiting list to participate, and other communities such as Chester and Wolfville are interested in starting Boomerang bag chapters, too.

Greg Crossman has made about 45 Boomerang bags. (CBC)

"I started to get a bit too creative, so they're concerned that my bags won't be returned, but they'll be taken as souvenirs," said Crossman, the group's top bag producer. "They're trying to reel me in."

Stores that participate in the Boomerang bag program have a sign in the window to let shoppers know. Many of those stores have a second sign in their window bearing a large blue W.

The Blue W program is a worldwide initiative to promote the use of safe tap water rather than bottled drinks. The website shows a couple of dozen participating locations in Lunenburg, compared with fewer than 10 in peninsular Halifax, which has a much larger population.

The Blue W program lets people know where they can fill a reusable bottle instead of buying a bottled drink. (CBC)

Lynne MacKay, who runs Ironworks Distillery, says good ideas like the Blue W program spread easily in Lunenburg.

"We live next to the ocean. If we weren't doing this, it would be embarrassing," she said.

But MacKay's commitment to plastic alternatives doesn't stop with her participation in the Blue W program.

Lynne MacKay is one of the founders of Ironworks Distillery, which uses several alternatives to plastics in its operations. (CBC)

She sees thousands of tourists flow through the distillery each year, including many who stop in for a tour of the business and a sample or two of the company's products.

Ironworks used to use plastic shot glasses, but because they weren't clean, they weren't recyclable. MacKay started hunting for an alternative and came up with a tiny paper cup.

She said they may be ugly, but she figures "it's time to make ugliness a virtue."

"There may come a time when using a plastic cup is considered almost rude, immature, unthinkable. So you have to start small and it may take time. It's OK — you start somewhere."

Ironworks now uses paper cups instead of plastic shot glasses for its samples. (CBC)
Many businesses in town have made small efforts to reduce plastic use. The Lunenburg School of the Arts will only rent its venue if you sign an agreement that you won't use single-use plastics. Fiore Botanica distributes its shampoo to hotels in glass bottles. No. 9 coffee shop serves up takeout orders in mason jars. And the list goes on.

Smith said although it makes her sad that many consumers are detached from the impact of their shopping habits, she's hopeful.

"I think as a community, in Lunenburg and Lunenburg County and Nova Scotia, I'm optimistic of what we can do in our small way to influence the bigger picture," she said.

With files from Land and Sea

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