Former long-time senior editor at the Vancouver Sun and Province.
Vancouver bills itself as Canada's greenest city, and yet there's one area where Fort McMurray, the Alberta town not known for its light environmental footprint, has us beat.
In 2010, Canada's oil sands capital banned single-use plastic grocery bags. Since then, shoppers have grown accustomed to toting their own reusable bags or, in a pinch, purchasing one at the till.
Other small Canadian municipalities followed suit. And come July 1, Victoria will ban all single-use plastic bags, joining California and entire countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.
So why has Vancouver, with its signature Greenest City Action Plan, been left in the dust over such an eco-friendly no-brainer?
There is no doubt banning bags is an effective way to reduce the volume of plastic in landfills. But in Canada, bag bans carry a very real risk of litigation from the deep-pocketed plastics industry.
By now, we all know plastic bags, two million of which hit the local landfill each week, are made from non-renewable petrochemicals, don't readily decompose and turn up on streets and beaches as litter.
Albert Shamess, Vancouver's waste management director, understands the waste problems associated with single-use bags, cups and containers. But he is not jumping on the ban bandwagon, opting instead to persuade Vancouverites to switch to reusables.
Fear of litigation aside, bans can have unintended consequences. For example, substituting paper for plastic is not the answer many people imagine. Paper gives you a bag that breaks down easily, but consumes a lot of water and energy to produce.
Consider as well that 63 per cent of the plastic grocery bags jettisoned in Vancouver every week have been reused for household trash. Ban plastic grocery bags, and people may just buy kitchen catchers.
Many of the conundrums are trumpeted by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, whose mission is beating back bag bans. It defend its turf with an aggression reminiscent of the National Rifle Association. Given half a chance, the association unleashes torrents of studies concluding thin plastic bags are the greenest option. There is even, on its website, a slogan that sounds like an invention of the American gun lobby: "Litter is a people problem, not a litter problem."
When Toronto attempted a bag ban in 2012, Big Plastic hit back hard with a lawsuit complaining about a lack of consultation. The legal threats cowed council into rescinding the measure, and it hasn't resurfaced. The plastics association hasn't ruled out a legal challenge to Victoria's ban, if it proceeds as planned.
Toronto and Vancouver are taking a public education approach to encourage people to switch to reusables. To foster buy-in, retailers, industry representatives and shoppers were all involved at the earliest stages of Vancouver's consultation process, Mr. Shamess says.
Many retailers introduced fees for bags, which has helped reduce the numbers. Although staff recommendations have not yet gone to council, Vancouver is not likely to adopt a "hard, fast regulatory approach," he says.
"Ours is a more difficult approach – get the whole community aligned with waste reduction."
Many environmentalists believe bans are the best way to wean people off their reliance on single-use items and are not impressed with Vancouver's gentle measures. They suspect powerful corporate interests with deep pockets have the city running scared.
It does seem the Greenest City is just not up for this fight. Maybe Vision members believe their adversary is too strong. Or maybe they've taken too many political hits over other green initiatives, such as bike lanes and a running battle with Fortis over natural gas.
Still, there are some indications the education process is already working. Loads of Vancouverites, including Mr. Shamess, lug their reusable bags to the grocery store, at least when they remember. I know a UBC professor who lives in a townhouse and bikes the household's frozen compost in a reusable bucket to work for disposal. Another friend waxes chunks of pliable cotton to use in lieu of plastic wrap. These are small steps by residents who don't purport to have the answers to end global warming or life without plastic. But they do indicate just how much some people are prepared to do to voluntarily to keep our city a tiny bit cleaner.