by Leslie Anthony
Last week I posted a funny piece about what to do with the tsunami of tsunami debris expected to hit the west coast of North America in the next few months. It contained a lot of ha ha ha. Afterward I took a look around my own town of Whistler—on the streets, in the plazas, out in the woods, along the beaches and in gurgling streams—only to realize that the material washed out to sea in a Japanese earthquake was a macrocosm of the waves of garbage we attempt to sweep from out lives on a daily basis. This part was not so funny. Even in a town dedicated to celebrating outdoor activity and pristine spaces, one which prides itself on sustainability issues and green-forward thinking, we are plagued by the mountains of trash we generate that can’t be recycled, repurposed or decomposed. Of all the problematic aspects of being a consumer society (carbon footprint, worker exploitation, resource extraction, pollution) none is worse than this: Houston, we have a packaging problem.
Whistler town council is currently in the throes of a ridiculous multi-year debate over banning plastic bags in the community. The reasons for doing so are obvious: plastic bags are a non-degradable plague that clog landfills, find their way into the environment with alarming regularity, and are a genuine hazard to wildlife and waterways. We once did without them and doing so again would not be difficult—there are many alternatives as well as innovative ways to get both citizens and visitors on board. As self-stated a “sustainable community” it is our duty to take such measures, to make the statement, and lead (perish the thought) on this issue, thereby encouraging further thinking and consumer behaviour along these same lines. It’ pretty much win-win while the reasons for opposing a ban are both fatuous and iniquitous: that the overall measureable environmental effect would be small so why bother, or that guests would somehow be put off (would anyone ever really reconsider a vacation because there were no plastic bags at the destination?). These challenges themselves can be challenged with a simple mantra of “start small” and “people will adapt.” And when you look at the realities of littering in Whistler and other mountain towns the answer is even more obvious.
Local students who participated in three shoreline and park clean-ups in recent years made a presentation to council in June which went beyond the local business consortium’s suggested 25%/year reduction targets to call for a 50%/year reduction in plastic bag use by imposing a 10-15 cent price tag on all bags and instituting a system of rental re-usable bags. They had the data to back it up—plastic bags and cigarette butts dominating the trash haul just like in big cities—as well as anecdotal information that included finding 184 bags in only three hours during one clean-up. No wonder many visitors express surprise that Whistler and other mountain resort towns haven’t already banned plastic bags.
Not only should plastic bags be banned and/or limited wherever and whenever possible, but general packaging laws should be enacted at municipal, provincial and federal levels. A deposit system should be instituted for cigarettes (a pilot project in Vancouver was spectacularly successful in getting cigarette butts returned from the streets for money). And resort towns around the globe should be leading the way. When mountains of trash threaten the very aesthetics of the mountains we go to in hopes of escaping society’s more pernicious trappings, it’s time to act, not discuss.