I know I’m not the only person in Rossland who was concerned to hear Kathy Moore declare her intention to outlaw plastic bags. Too often, the frustration I hear on the streets doesn’t seem to be heard by the council or the mayor; here’s my attempt to express some of my frustration on this issue.
To be clear, this isn’t about plastic bags. Still, since that’s what Kathy has deemed the most important issue facing Rossland today, let’s start there.
I don’t like plastic bags. I don’t like to see them discarded on the side of the highway; I don’t like to think of them lurking forever in landfills. I like wood, paper, metal and glass; plastic is simply not the loveliest of materials.
Still, I don’t think plastic is the devil. Plastic keeps life-saving fluids sterile, and forms the tubes through which we deliver those fluids into critically ill patients’ veins. Even the unlovely Ziploc bag has kept my sandwiches fresh and my toiletries contained on wilderness camping trips (go on, admit it, you’ve used them too).
Are plastic bags really such a pressing environmental issue? It seems sacrilegious even to ask the question; but it’s the sacrilegious questions that are the most important to ask.
I always fetch my groceries on foot, being fortunate enough to live only 15 minutes’ walk from Ferraro’s. Sometimes, when there’s not enough room in my backpack for everything in my basket, those nasty plastic bags help me carry the excess home. I know what you’re thinking: it would be better if I carried reusable bags in my backpack and used those instead. I’ll admit, though, I like it that these bags are freely available. I re-use them for a multitude of purposes, from containing my garbage to transporting bottles for recycling in Trail. I’ll still need plastic bags for such purposes; it’s just that in future, I’ll have to buy them from the shelves of Ferraro’s (perhaps, ironically, putting the package of plastic bags in paper bags to carry them home). A small expense, for sure, but for anyone already struggling with the cost of living in Rossland, just one more step towards it being beyond affordability.
Compare my occasional use of Ferraro’s plastic bags with other people’s use of their cars to pick up the groceries. I’m not judging: these others may be elderly, or have kids in tow, or live further out than I do. Still, the gas they burn getting their groceries home is made from the same stuff – petroleum – as the plastic bags I use to get my groceries home.
What would happen if we banned plastic bags? No doubt Ferraro’s would switch to paper bags. Those hanging blocks at the checkouts, each of which consists of an extraordinary number of extremely thin plastic bags, would be replaced with piles of heavy, bulky paper bags. These would take up so much more space that they’d have to be repeatedly replenished from the back of the store; they’d add so much more weight to the trucks that bring them in (not to mention the trucks that’ll have to ship them out for recycling) that we might well get through more petroleum transporting paper bags than we do making plastic bags. Nor would the manufacture of paper bags be cost-free, environmentally. Even if they’re made of recycled material, paper comes from trees, ultimately, trees that have to be chopped down, pulped and processed.
As I said, though, this isn’t about plastic bags. For me, it’s about how we make change in the world.
Kathy Moore’s unilateral declaration that she would like to see a bylaw against plastic bags does not seem the most appropriate use of the power we have given her. Though there are some in Rossland who would like to see a ban on plastic bags, there’s no groundswell of support for it. Kathy did not campaign on this issue and has no mandate for such a ban. Nor does she seem to have tried the other way to make change in the world: has she provided leadership in encouraging the people of Rossland to reduce their use of plastic bags? Has she lobbied Ferraro’s to consider ways to reduce the impact of plastic bags, such as switching to biodegradable plastic? Has she inquired whether the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary might permit plastic bags in our curbside recycling boxes, to save us from having to burn yet more gas getting them to the recycling facilities in Trail? Rather than recognize the nuances of the issue and the moral agency of the actors, Kathy went straight to imposing her will on the rest of us, by the power vested in her and the council. She has decided to make our decisions for us.
We rely on the mayor and the council to keep the city running: the streets clear of snow, the water and sewage flowing, the lights on. These are difficult and frustrating tasks, no doubt, but that’s no excuse for turning away from these challenges and proposing hectoring bylaws instead.
My message to Kathy Moore is this: trust Ferraro’s to run their own business, trust the people of Rossland to make our own moral choices, and stop trying to micromanage our lives.