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About Banning Plastic Bags

About Banning Plastic Bags About Banning Plastic Bags

Recently, Toronto City Council did something that Mayor Rob Ford deemed ludicrous and dangerous: They banned plastic bags. Perhaps Council was concerned about the estimated 500 billion plastic bags are used around the globe each year. Yet, while commentators such as the Globe and Mails Margaret Wente decried the ban as the new puritan cause, African countries have been out front on this issue for years.

Almost a decade ago, South Africa began restricting the use of plastic bags. In 2007, both Uganda and Kenya banned the thinnest plastic bags and imposed taxes on the usage of other plastic bags. By 2006, Rwanda, Eritrea and Somaliland had banned plastic bags altogether. When I crossed over from Uganda to Rwanda in 2009, border officials scolded me for wrapping my shampoo in a plastic bag. Not only was it illegal, they told me, it was also bad for the environment.

Plastic bags are banned for a reason. In Africa, they are a persistent blight. The presence of tattered plastic bags blowing along the countryside caused them to be dubbed South Africas National Flower. Ugandas ban is helping, but there is a ways to go. The bags end up on the streets, blown against fences and the lush palm and acacia trees. On Kampalas chaotic streets, in the midst of the dust, honking matatus, rushing pedestrians and hungry goats, the plastic bags have become part of the background. They choke plants, choke animals, and clog the water drains, causing roads to flood from the back up during the rainy season.

Without a coherent trash collection system on the streets, Kampalas residents often turn to burning the garbage along with grass and scrap vegetation. These tiny smouldering fires can be seen all over the city; families near my office burn garbage regularly. Burning plastic creates serious health problems, including respiratory ailments. Even worse, the burning of plastic creates dioxin and furans, the most dangerous compounds in the world. It is a permanent stain in the eco-system. Dioxins have been labeled genetic hand grenades. In a country where most people cannot afford proper health care, this is serious.

Margaret Wente sneeringly describes the Toronto ban as the imposition of virtue by the classes on the masses. What Wente doesnt understand is that that around the world, it is the masses that suffer from the proliferation of toxins and pollution. You dont see the expats in Naguru or Kololo with their mansions, gated compounds and well-manicured lawns, dealing with garbage. It is the people living in the slums of Kisenyi, and the people living in shacks along the roadside, who suffer from the trash and toxins from burning garbage. If they dont burn the garbage, the streets would be overrun with junk.

Many people in Toronto think that Rob Fords outrage over the ban on plastic bags is simply one more example of his buffoonish character. There is a tendency to treat Ford as just a one-off phenomenon -- and then Toronto and Canada will return to political normalcy. But in many ways, Rob Ford fits as the new face of Canada on the world stage.

As countries across Africa fight desperately to protect and restore the environment, Canada is sending out clear signals that worrying about the environment is for extremists. Ugandans dont have that luxury. Consider that 23 per cent of all deaths in Africa are linked to environmental factors, caused by dirty water, land degradation and toxic urban pollution. Since 1950, roughly 500 million hectares of land in Uganda have suffered from soil degradation- this is almost 65 per cent of agricultural land.

While Canada trashes its international reputation by attacking environmentalists as radicals and repudiating Kyoto, Ugandans are living with the real impacts of environmental degradation. And so while Mr. Ford hopes for corporate lawsuits to turn back the clock in Toronto, Kampala is working towards a future where the wetlands and fields wont be blighted by the ubiquitous plastic bag.

Canada used to send development organizations to help Africa. Now they just seem to send multinational mining and oil companies, looking to get the continents resources. Maybe its time Uganda and other African countries sent development officers and agencies to help Canada get back on track. Maybe this time, Ugandans can help Canadians take back Canada.

I just came back from the UK. Outside of the Isle of Wight, the cashiers at most grocery stores didnt even offer bags. The customers either just carried their purchases loose or used their own bags. Even on the Isle of Wight, they would ask if a bag was required.

At home in North Bay, Council has passed bylaws to try to restrict the use of plastic bags. Quite a few of the local supermarkets charge 0.5 per bag.

It is not surprising to me that the mayor of Toronto is out of step with environmental measures. Look how long it took Toronto to get on board with recycling - long after the rest of the GTA and before that, Bracebridge, a small town in Central Ontario had recycling programs in place.

People are inherently lazy and although they may pay lip service to the idea of replacing plastic bags with some other form of carrier they will not go to the supermarket armed with these alternative carrier bags. So the plastic bag will continue to clog and mar the landscape and fill our landfills. Canada has before it a great opportunity to replace plastic with brown paper bags. We have a huge industrial opportunity here to make use of the millions of hectares of trees that are of no use as building material and can be used as a renewable source of employment for thousands of Canadians from planters, loggers, haulers, factory workers and shippers. The bags could be produced so they are 100% biodegradable so that there will be a virtual closed loop system. With more and more municipalities collecting organic waste there is a need to collect this material and what better way than in a brown paper bag thereby using it twice before it is recycled. Such plants could be located in the far north where there is a need for employment amongst the indigenous peoples. This is a win, win situation for Canada and I think every large urban community should jump on the wagon.

If one considers that all costs in retail are added into the costs of items for sale, one begins to see that the use of plastic bags is probably hitting us in the wallet.

Weve tried voluntary: most people simply cant be bothered to remember to bring their own bags to the grocery store.

But when no bags are there, remembering will be an easy habit to get into. While I doubt people will see an instant reduction in food prices, they might be a tiny bit sheltered from the next increase or two.