Beyond bags 

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Last year I wrote a funny-ish piece in this space 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. But spending a lot of time outdoors this summer, I've taken a look around my own town — on streets, in the woods, at beaches, even in the shady recesses along gurgling streams — only to realize that the material washed out to sea during the 2011 Japanese earthquake was but a microcosm of the waves of garbage pushed out by the daily doings of each of us.

This part wasn't so funny. Even in a town dedicated to celebrating outdoor activity and pristine spaces, one which prides itself on sustainability and green-forward thinking, we're plagued by the abundant trash that can't be recycled, repurposed or decomposed. Of all the problematic aspects of consumerism (carbon footprint, worker exploitation, resource extraction, pollution) none is worse than this. Though a de facto hallmark of western society, it's the same — often a good deal worse — in every corner of the globe: Houston, we have a packaging problem.

Whistler's town council is currently in the throes of a ridiculous multi-year debate over banning plastic bags in the community. The reasons advanced by proponents are straightforward: plastic bags are a non-degradable plague that clog landfills, find their way into other parts of the environment with alarming regularity, and pose a genuine and measurable hazard to waterways and a host of wildlife — a semiotic of our environmental death spiral. We once did without them and doing so again would not be difficult — there are many alternatives and innovative ways to get both citizens and visitors on board. As a self-stated "sustainable community" it seems an imperative to take such measures. To make a statement and lead (perish the thought — don't get me started on leaf-blowers), thereby encouraging further thinking on these items (made from oil, a genuine problem), consumer behaviour (do I need this?) and similar issues. This seems pretty much win-win, while the reasons offered for opposing a ban appear both fatuous and iniquitous: that the overall environmental effect would be vanishingly small so why bother; that guests would somehow be put off (would anyone really reconsider a vacation because there were no plastic bags at the destination?); or that business would suffer (please). Because such challenges can themselves be challenged with mantras as simple as "start small" and "people adapt," you have to wonder why it has become such a protracted issue. It seems more likely that taking a stand would be a value-added optic and draw for our town.

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 a commercial consortium's commendable 25 per cent per year reduction targets in plastic bag use in suggesting a more aggressive 50 per cent annual reduction that included a 10-to-15-cent price tag on all bags and instituting a rental system for re-usable bags. They had the data to back it up. With plastic bags and cigarette butts dominating their trash hauls — just like in big cities — as well as anecdotal information like finding 184 bags in only three hours during one clean-up, it's no wonder that many visitors express surprise that Whistler and other mountain resort towns haven't already banned these things.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, so when it comes to plastic bags, we simply need to make it not necessary to have them. For the most part, the only thing I use plastic bags for these days... is throwing out other plastic bags. Not only should plastic bags be banned and/or limited wherever possible, but what we really need are some comprehensive packaging laws and tax incentives. This could happen at municipal and provincial levels, but should really start with the feds. There is simply too much wasteful packaging out there, stuff that boggles the mind and is even physically flummoxing. On the food front, shopping locally and more frequently for fresh items reduces the use of packaging from processed food, but other things can be done as well. Far more packaging should be biodegradable, if not compostable, an industry we should encourage while discouraging all plastic packing material. In addition, a deposit system should be instituted for cigarettes (a pilot project in Vancouver was spectacularly successful in getting butts returned from the streets for money). Being in the business of escapism and clean living, it's in the best interests of resort towns worldwide to lead the way.

When mountains of trash threaten the very aesthetic of the mountains on which our livelihood and reputation depend, it's time to act, not discuss. After all, we shouldn't be worrying about how guests might be inconvenienced by our town doing what's right, but about what kind of town we're trying to offer.


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