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Every now and then, Vancouver is faced with a decision the answer to which is so glaringly obvious, you wonder why city councillors don’t stop dithering and call a vote. Forget the surveys to gauge public opinion: We need to ban single-use plastic shopping bags and coffee cups, plastic glasses and utensils and the sooner the better. The world is choking on single-use plastic items. They are clogging our landfills and the ones that get away are polluting our oceans and killing sea creatures.

Yet here in Vancouver, which aspires to be the world’s greenest city, you can still get a plastic bag at a grocery store and your takeaway coffee in a plastic-lined or Styrofoam cup. You may have to pay for grocery bags, but judging by the number that still end up in landfills, the fee is obviously not enough to deter all shoppers. And although it is true most single-use grocery bags are reused to dispose of household trash, there are shockingly large numbers that go to the landfill empty. The same holds true for takeaway coffee cups. Although some purveyors offer discounts to people who bring their own mug, the incentives are insufficient to change behaviour.

Last year, Metro Vancouver did a study to quantify the amounts of single-use items that end up in area landfills. The overall number – 1.13 billion items – is mind-boggling. Utensils, both plastic and wood (mostly chopsticks in this sushi-crazed city), topped the list at 331 million, followed by 262 million cups and 256 million bags, almost all of them plastic. Of the bags, 155 million were reused, but 87 million were tossed away empty.

This mountain of waste is generated merely for our convenience. You can’t blame anyone for wanting to grab a bite to eat or drink on the run or make an impromptu stop at the grocery store to pick up a few things after work. But the minute single-use plastics disappear, we will adopt less environmentally damaging workarounds. A few days without a latte and we’d remember our portable mug. A trip or two to a grocery store with no plastic bags and we’d all be stuffing reusable bags in our purses and backpacks.

Vancouver’s city council is inching in the right direction, but progress has been slow. The city set timelines for phasing out single-use plastic items, but the first was postponed to allow time for further industry consultation. A proposed plastic-straw ban that was supposed to begin in June has been pushed to April, 2020. Obviously, some bans are more difficult to navigate than others and change can’t happen overnight. Bendable plastic straws are important for some people with disabilities, so that delay might have been necessary to ensure they remain available to those who need them. No one wants to give up on takeout food and it needs to be sold in something. We need to take the time to make sure the alternatives truly are more sustainable.

But why is the city only now surveying residents to gauge whether a plastic-bag ban is palatable? Victoria is ahead of us with a ban that worked just fine for a year. The ban was overturned last week after a court challenge by the Canadian Plastic Bag Association, on grounds that environmental legislation is a provincial, not municipal, jurisdiction. I doubt local businesses, which have already adjusted by selling paper and reusable plastic bags at the till, will rush back to dispensing single-use plastic bags.

Vancouver and Victoria are governed by different laws, so Big Plastic would have to find another avenue to fight a bag ban here. And it might try. But as a recent poll done for The Globe and Mail shows, all lawsuits will be bucking public opinion. The Nanos Research survey found 65 per cent of B.C. residents support banning single-use plastics and would even pay a small premium for more sustainable options. (The margin of error for the random survey is 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.) Even the federal government, which is typically slower to change, is considering a countrywide ban as early as 2021.

However, it’s possible the coming election could skewer that plan. Meanwhile, Vancouver should get cracking, get the bag ban in place and work quickly to phase out other single-use plastics.

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