Fort Frances was the 1st Ontario town to ban single-use plastics. So how has it gone?
Supply chain issues persist, but business owners say customers have accepted alternatives to plastic
One year after Fort Frances became the first municipality in Ontario to ban single-use plastics, some businesses and customers say the transition to recyclable and compostable alternatives has been relatively smooth.
Nonetheless, the town has opted to delay enforcing the bylaw due to supply chain concerns raised by some restaurant owners.
The ban took effect on Jan. 1, 2021, and enforcement was initially delayed by one year to give businesses time to adapt to the new requirements. Town council voted late last year to further delay enforcement until June 30.
The bylaw prohibits the distribution of Styrofoam takeout containers, plastic swizzle sticks, stir sticks and straws; and plastic grocery bags. It contains a number of exceptions, such as allowing plastic straws to be handed out upon request so that people with disabilities who need the items can still access them.
Compostable alternatives to plastic grocery bags
As the federal government prepares to implement a single-use plastics ban before the end of 2022, CBC Thunder Bay reached out to people in Fort Frances to learn about their experiences in their northwestern Ontario town.
"It's been accepted very well," said Craig Sanders, who owns The Place, an independent grocery store. "I mean, for the first couple of days, there were a couple of people complaining, but it doesn't take people long to get used to the idea that there's been a change, and this is how things have to be."
Sanders spent much of the year preparing to transition away from plastic grocery bags and found a supplier who offers a compostable alternative, he said. He made the transition after Christmas, and now offers both paper and compostable plastic bags for 10 cents each.
"Plastic bags were costing us just over two cents," he said. "The new ones are costing us 12 to 15 cents, depending on whether it's paper or plastic. So we've implemented a charge. And we're seeing people bring their own bags a lot more often."
Sanders estimated he handed out around 1,500 plastic bags a week prior to the implementation of the single-use plastics ban. He's now giving out between 800 and 900 recyclable or compostable alternatives, and that number is trending downward.
Grocery store customer Nadine Cousineau said she usually brought reusable bags to the store even before the plastic bag ban, so it wasn't hard for her to adjust. But she said things are a little more complicated now if she forgets those bags.
"The grocery store here actually offers paper bags, but you pay for them — I believe it's like 15 cents a bag — so there's that option, she said.
"But they do often run out. So I either just load up my cart with all my groceries and then put them in my vehicle, or I buy another reusable bag … And I know quite a few people who end up having about 100 reusable bags, because they forget their bags, and then they have to buy new ones every time they go to the store."
One of the restaurant owners who signed the letter to the city asking it to delay the penalty phase of the ban said she's not opposed to helping the environment.
Sarah Noonan, who owns La Place Rendez-Vous, a hotel and restaurant in Fort Frances, said she's been replacing single-use shampoo bottles in her hotel rooms with refillable dispensers. She doesn't use Styrofoam packaging for her take-out food, and she stopped giving out straws long before the bylaw was passed — unless people specifically requested them.
She's also been using paper rather than plastic bags for more than a year now.
But recent supply chain problems have prevented her from being consistent about that, she said.
"We couldn't get paper bags for a little while," she said. "This supply chain stuff is insane. And after, like, the storm out on the west coast, even if we wanted to comply, we couldn't get the product."
Noonan's restaurant went straw free after she took an environmental pledge at a Toronto food show several years ago, though she started offering them again upon request after realizing some people needed them.
"We got barely any complaints," she said of the initiative. "But we saved tens of thousands of straws a year, so it was an easy fix. … You're doing something good for the environment and you don't have to buy that supply anymore."
The part of the bylaw that involves restricting straws is controversial with advocates for people with disabilities.
Nicole Pentney wrote a letter to town council in November 2019 raising concerns that a straw ban would discriminate against people with disabilities who rely on them to help them consume beverages.
Access issues for people with disabilities
Council opted to allow restaurants to give out straws upon request, but Pentney, a longtime social services worker, said she still had concerns about its impact on people with disabilities.
"Unfortunately, the ban on [plastic] straws has made them unavailable in most restaurants," she wrote in a message to CBC News. "While some restaurants may have them available upon request, the ban has effectively made them no longer available in all locations to those with a need for them."
Pentney also said she was concerned that forcing people to ask for straws would stigmatize them by causing others to see them as environmentally careless.
Nicole LaPine, a stroke survivor, shared Pentney's concerns, telling CBC News she only goes to restaurants that she knows offer straws on demand.
"When the bylaw came out, I was hurt that people assumed that people who used single-use straws were hurting the planet," she said. "I get restaurants not using them all the time, but I needed a straw to get fluids. I was also pretty surprised at how uneducated people were."
Coun. Douglas Judson, a proponent of the bylaw, said the straws-on-demand rule was designed to strike a balance between the needs of people with disabilities and the environmental goals of the initiative. Nonetheless, he said, council is always open to hearing ideas about how to make the town more inclusive.
LaPine feels torn about the bylaw and isn't sure how it could be fixed, she said.
Pentney said she would like to see the straw ban scrapped.
One other concern about the bylaw that was raised by Noonan related to communication.
"I actually don't fully understand what the ban is yet, to be honest," she said.
Noonan emailed CBC News a copy of a Town of Fort Frances poster that stated, "No Business shall sell or provide single-use food packaging to a customer for the purpose of transporting, containing or facilitating the consumption of prepared food or beverages received by the customer from the business."
The bylaw, however, states only foam packaging is prohibited.
Judson confirmed the ban only applies to Styrofoam packaging and not to other takeout containers.
"If there is confusion around that, we do have work to do in our communications," he said.
Overall, Judson said, he is proud of the town's response to the plastics ban.
"Even at the outset of this, back in late 2019 when I started shopping the idea around, I went to the Chamber of Commerce, I went to the local Business Improvement Association, and I didn't really get any negative pushback," he said.
"I think it's a really good example, too, of how local government and municipalities can show leadership on bigger problems."