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How would a single-use plastic ban affect Yellowknife?

A plastic mayonnaise jar lies on the ground outside the city dump. Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo.

Walt Humphries is sick of plastics.

"I think a lot of it we can do away with,” said the prospector, salvager and artist who often rails against the evils of litter and waste in his weekly Yellowknifer opinion column called "Tales From The Dump."

"You used to buy a wooden chair, now you buy a plastic chair. You used to buy a wooden mixing bowl, now you have a plastic mixing bowl."

"It’s just gotten ridiculous."

On June 10, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a proposed federal ban of single-use plastics which could come into effect as early as 2021.

This diagram from a report on the plastic industry and waste in Canada shows the life cycle of plastic products. An estimated 87 per cent of plastic waste ends up in landfills or the environment. © Environment and Climate Change Canada

Single-use plastics are, as the name suggests, plastic products that are designed to be used once and then disposed of. While a list of banned items has yet to be finalized, a news release from the Prime Minister's Office states that “harmful” single-use plastics like plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates and stir sticks could be included in the ban if “supported by scientific evidence and warranted.”

In 2017 the Canadian plastic product manufacturing industry reached $25 billion in sales while employing around 89,000 people. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has raised concerns about the impact the ban could have on small businesses and the economy.

But Humphries said he's relieved Trudeau is taking this step, though he doesn't think it will be easy.

“It's just taken over so much that if you tried to eliminate them entirely, it'd be difficult,” he said. "Now you go to the store and nine times out of ten you’re buying a plastic bag that you put in a plastic bag.”

Walt Humphries is a longtime Yellowknifer who often rails against litter and waste in his weekly Yellowknifer opinion column called "Tales From The Dump."
NNSL file photo

A ban would radically change the retail environment for both shoppers and sellers, as plastics are so widespread, he said. Nowadays, you can pick up a plastic bag of apples rather than picking out how many apples you want and placing them in a paper bag yourself, Humphries pointed out.

While he generally supports the ban, Humphries warns the devil is in the details, which in this will be how the federal government plans to define single-use plastics and how it plans to roll out the ban.

"I hope they do take into consideration that different parts of the country have different needs," said Humphries. "What may work in a big city like Toronto or Montreal may not work in a much smaller place where everything has to be shipped in."

Humphries said he’d like to see the federal government look into recycling ‘multi-use’ plastics. The longtime patron of the Yellowknife dump says a staggering number of plastic chairs end up at the local landfill.

Humphries said he hopes the federal government considers gradually phasing out single-use plastics to make the adjustment easier for people.

“But that’s thinking ahead, which governments aren’t good at doing,” he said.

A plastic mayonnaise jar lies on the ground outside the city dump. Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo

A 2016 economic study on plastics commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada found that Canadians only recycle about nine per cent of their plastic waste. The vast majority – 86 per cent – ends up in landfills.

Here in Yellowknife we're messier than most. A 2017 audit found Yellowknifers throw out more garbage per capita than the average Canadian.

"In 2017, 24,289 tonnes of waste from the City of Yellowknife were landfilled at the Solid Waste Facility," the report states.

This translates to a disposal rate of over 1100 kg per capita – more than 400 kg above the Canadian average of 701 kg per capita.

Plastic bottles being recycled at the Bottle Depot in Yellowknife. Meaghan Richens/NNSL photo

Banning the bag

Since territory's Single-use Retail Bag Program came into effect in 2011, all Yellowknife businesses, except restaurants, either charge a 25-cent fee for single-use plastic bags or have done away with them entirely.

Since its launch, the program has saved over 47 million plastic bags, which is almost 235 tonnes of plastic, stated Meagan Wohlberg, a manager of public affairs and communications with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), in an email to Yellowknifer.

ENR doesn't have information on how much plastic ends up in NWT landfills, but the government does keep track of how much is diverted from them.

"As part of the Beverage Container Program that was implemented in 2005, NWT residents have recycled almost 69 million plastic beverage containers to date," she stated.

Since 2016, when the Electronic Recycling Program was introduced, over 286 tonnes of e-waste has been recycled, a significant amount of which was plastic, she added.

Wohlberg wouldn't explicitly say whether ENR would support the federal single-use plastics ban, but said the GWNT endorsed the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) Zero Plastic Waste Strategy (ZPW Strategy) in 2018.

ENR is also in the final stages of releasing an NWT Waste Resource Management Strategy and Implementation Plan, she added.

"Both the ZPW Strategy and the NWT Waste Resource Management Strategy and Implementation Plan already include actions aimed to reduce the generation of plastic waste, including single-use items, and increase the amount of waste diverted through recycling," stated Wohlberg.

Businesses making the switch

“Many businesses have already made positive changes that don’t rely on single-use plastics,” said Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, in an email.

Some businesses have switched to compostable products. Others like Birchwood Coffee Ko and Gourmet Cup offer a discount if you bring your own cup, and some don’t even offer plastic bags – the only option is to purchase a reusable one, she added.

“Changes like the single-use plastic ban will always be disruptive to local businesses, who will have to ensure that they use their current inventory and find new suppliers,” stated Everett.

“It does look like the ban won’t come into effect until 2021, so I anticipate that will give businesses lots of time to transition,” she added.

The chamber organizes the annual spring trade show and has been working to make the event more green through cardboard recycling and composting. Because the Yellowknife Farmers Market requires all disposable items used by vendors be compostable, many of the trade show vendors have already made the switch, stated Everett.

"In considering whether to implement the same rule for our food vendors – I did some research on the cost of purchasing compostable items and the price is very similar, so I don’t anticipate this will be a huge financial burden on local businesses," she said of the proposed ban.