Cotton reusable bag given out by B.C. Liquor Stores 20 years ago. It’s never been entirely clear how plastic bags threaten the Vancouver Island marmot or the burrowing owl. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

B.C. VIEWS: Politicians pose on plastic bags

Virtue signalling distracts from local government performance

It’s a municipal election year, with four-year terms of office on the line for communities around B.C. this fall.

So now is a good time for voters to start watching for grand gestures from local politicians to distract you from potholes, pot shops, parking tickets, snow non-removal, screwed-up sewers, bungled bridges, overpriced arenas, overbuilt bike lanes, and of course ever-rising property taxes.

The flavour of the year for 2018 looks to be plastic bags. The nanny-state enthusiasts at Victoria city hall are running to the front of this parade, imposing fines and regulations on businesses and their employees starting on July 1, to stop them from recklessly putting customer purchases into plastic bags.

Politicians refer to them as “single-use” bags, and as with much of modern environmentalism, that’s not strictly true. People re-use them all the time, taking them back to the store or lining wastebaskets to reduce consumption of those other disposable bags. Or they carefully recycle them, using elaborate plastic recycling systems that will still be needed.

These social engineering bylaws don’t come close to getting rid of plastic bags and packaging. They come with a string of exemptions, to allow transport of fresh or frozen meats, vegetables, bakery buns and bulk items, from nuts to nails. Frozen peas and other convenience foods will continue to be sold in plastic bags. Electronics, tools and toys will still come in those hard bubble packs that require a Jedi light-sabre to open, and all that stuff has to be sorted and recycled.

The City of Victoria web page kindly allows that newspapers, dry cleaning and new bedding may still be protected by plastic bags, which it grimly notes are a product of “non-renewable fossil fuels.” Businesses may provide paper bags for a minimum 12 cents each (nice round figure), or $2 for a bag that is officially recognized as reusable.

Two obvious absurdities arise. Most “reusable” bags are made from woven plastic, generally shipped from China. And as Victoria admits, making paper bags produces more greenhouse gas emissions than turning natural gas into plastic bags.

Like many people, I voluntarily converted to reusable bags many years ago, because they cut down on waste and they work better. I have a batch at home, more in the car and one tough packable bag that travels to work in my backpack.

My collection includes a 20-year-old cotton bag with a picture of a pelican and a slogan “keep them alive.” This notion that plastic kills water birds is great propaganda, and it illustrates how the anti-plastic movement is marketed.

A friend recently posted an old picture on Facebook, showing a duck with one of those six-pack rings around its neck. You may have seen a similar one where a turtle’s shell grew deformed after it managed to get one of those plastic rings around it while it was small. A dozen people quickly chimed in to agree they were taught as kids to cut up those rings before throwing them out.

Of course this misses the point entirely. The task is not to make them safe for disposal, it’s to recycle the plastic, or at least keep it out of waterways. Should tipsy fishermen cut up their rings before tossing them overboard to join their empty beer cans? Better to collect them in a plastic bag for proper recycling.

Fun fact: Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt sees himself taking “leadership” on plastic bags, rejecting the idea that the province should handle this to make it consistent. If you want leadership, see the local government that banned them in 2009. That would be the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, better known as Fort McMurray.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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