Northern Sask. residents push to 'unplastic' their communities
Environment, climate change most important issue for many Canadians in federal election
Autumn Carlson says the water around La Ronge, Sask., has changed.
During the last 17 years, Carlson has noticed more plastic and Styrofoam gathering along the grassy shoreline each time the ice melts in the spring.
Her kids noticed, too.
"I started to think about what kind of world I want my children to see, what kind of world I want my grandchildren to see," she said.
Carlson routinely takes her kids to help gather up the garbage that emerges after winter. She also co-created the Facebook group "Unplastic Northern Sask.," alongside Angela Plunz. It's meant to raise awareness and share practical solutions on how to reduce single-use plastic in the tri-communities — La Ronge, Air Ronge and Lac La Ronge.
The focus is on reusing and reducing, but they also encourage people to recycle properly. Carlson is also encouraged as local businesses get on board.
"It's the feeling that it's working. We just have to keep working at it to get more people are willing to change," Carlson said.
Several local businesses are starting to charge a fee for plastic bags or have stopped using plastic and Styrofoam for food and beverages at events. The restaurant Cravings has gone entirely plastic-free.
Carlson said the Riverside Motel has a bulk store that offers sustainable products like laundry soap, insect repellent or shampoo.
She said they're in the process of trying to take their initiatives further by bringing local government leadership on board.
"A lot is happening, a lot still needs to happen."
Giving plastic a second life
Terri-Ann Weinberger is trying to give discarded plastic a second life in Air Ronge.
By day, she's busy as a registrar at Northland College. She's spent countless evenings and weekends in her Air Ronge shop, trying to turn No. 2 and No. 5 plastics into new products.
She uses three machines to shred, melt and manipulate plastic into new products like baskets, coasters and tiles.
Weinberger says she's always been seen as a frugal person who has "reused things to death and tried to make good choices," she said.
"I really like reclamation."
She gathers the plastics from her own home, friends and a partnership with the Churchill Community High School recycling program. Students collect plastics curbside once a month and bring her the batch.
The project wasn't created in an effort to be more eco-friendly; rather Weinberger and her husband wanted bug-proof edging for their yard. They had trouble finding what they needed, so they found out how to make their own using a website that showed how to do at-home plastic recycling and moulding.
Now, Weinberger's actions have been celebrated in the community and she's looking to expand the process.
"Ultimately, I would love for people to be reusing the items that they donate," she said. "However, I know realistically people will throw that stuff out and I would be rescuing it — perfectly fine stuff — from the landfill."
Online 'unplastic' movement expands to new community
Recently, Carlson was contacted by a stranger named Angela Leski from the town of Shellbrook. Leski was inquiring about Unplastic Northern Sask., and whether she could use the name for her own region.
Carlson said some ideas spread like wildfire on social media and she wants to see the momentum continue. It appears to be doing just that, as Leski has just launched "Unplastic the Parkland."
Plastic has been a longtime concern for Leski, especially as she's seen packaging increase. For example, she said it's troubling that fruit that used to come in cardboard cartons now comes wrapped in multiple kinds of plastic.
"I'm really quite taken aback by how much that's changed. You know, you go into a grocery store these days and it just looks like a sea of plastic."
Calls for federal leadership
Some grocers have started to address calls for less plastic. For example, grocery giant Sobeys announced it would phase out plastic bags that carry groceries next year.
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"It sort of shows that there is now both demands from consumers that they're looking to appease and also pressure from the government," said Naomi Mihilewicz, who is the communications co-ordinator with the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council.
In June, the federal Liberal government announced it would ban single-use plastics — which could include bags, straws and cutlery — in Canada in 2021 at the earliest.
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Environment and Climate Change Canada said at the time that Canadians throw away more than 34 million plastic bags every day that often wind up in landfills, and it can take as long as 1,000 years for them to decay.
Mihilewicz said blanket bans make it easier to tackle plastic, as opposed to having small bans in individual municipalities.
"It's really difficult for small communities to be able to, you know, pass bans here and pass them there. It's also really difficult to stand up to the plastics industry."
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Clear guidelines that are established can also can make it easier on retailers if they have to follow a standard set of rules, she said.
Environmental issues have been a key point of discussion leading up to the federal election. In fact, data collected by Vox Pop Labs for Vote Compass — a civic engagement application offered by CBC/Radio-Canada — shows that the environment is the No. 1 issue among many Canadians.
This is a vast difference from the 2015 election, which saw people most concerned about the economy.
Vox Pop Labs says that the environment weighs in as top issue across all age groups. The non-random sample was weighted to create a representative picture of the Canadian population.
This data is based on the responses of 90,224 people who answered between Sept. 11 and 18, 2019, about what the most important issue was to them in this election.
Leski hopes the conversation carries on long after Oct. 21. "I hope that it is something that is taken seriously by all governments, and that it kind of transcends any sort of political party," she said.
"I hope it's something that stays in the forefront of people's thinking."
Eventually, she hopes local businesses in the area will be inspired to cut back plastic.
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For now, she wants "Unplastic the Parkland" to grow into a positive online discussion space where people can share ideas about alternatives and teach each other.
"There's endless ideas of what can be done, and they're all small — but they add up."