While other cities act, Whistler drags its feet on plastic 

Zero Waste Committee expected 'by the end of the year'

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF AWARE - PLASTIC NOT FANTASTIC All the plastic that ends up being pulled out of the compost by hand at the local Sea to Sky Soils composting plant at Rutherford. Pictured are Sea to Sky Soils' Jaye-jay Berggren and Scott Kerr with AWARE's Claire Ruddy.
  • PHOTO courtesy of AWARE
  • PLASTIC NOT FANTASTIC All the plastic that ends up being pulled out of the compost by hand at the local Sea to Sky Soils composting plant at Rutherford. Pictured are Sea to Sky Soils' Jaye-jay Berggren and Scott Kerr with AWARE's Claire Ruddy.

While other B.C. municipalities are taking action on reducing plastic waste, Whistler continues to drag its feet.

"You see other communities are taking great steps forward ... the City of Victoria has been looking at restricting plastic bags, the City of Vancouver has just brought forward their zero waste 2040 strategy, the City of Richmond has a bylaw on construction demolition waste," said Whistler Councillor Sue Maxwell.

"There are lots of good things that are happening, and there's a strong interest in our community here, so that's why it's quite frustrating that we do not yet have a committee."

At its July 4, 2017 meeting, council approved a motion to direct staff to convene a Zero Waste Committee as a Select Committee of Council. But 10 months later, the committee remains unformed, despite Maxwell asking about it regularly.

"A lot of the good initiatives that have happened here have often come through community, and so maybe we just set up our own community committee and start things happening that way," Maxwell said.

"If anybody is interested in forming some kind of committee, I encourage them to reach out to me, because I would be happy to start looking at that."

Asked about the committee, a Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) spokesperson said it is expected to be formed by the end of the year, and that municipal staff will be paying close attention to Vancouver's plastic ban (the first city in Canada to do so) to learn from its implementation experience.

Outright bans on things can be tricky, as the first response from industry is usually a lawsuit, Maxwell said—one of the reasons she helped form the BC Inter-Municipal Working Group on Zero Waste.

Maxwell and other elected officials formed the group after a Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) screening of the documentary A Plastic Ocean.

"We developed a discussion paper calling for eight actions from the provincial government that would work along with the directions that the local governments were taking, (and) we put forward a motion at UBCM asking for a provincial zero-waste strategy, and that got adopted," Maxwell said.

The group has met with provincial ministers and presented at conferences, and is now working on following up on its discussion paper.

While a five-cent plastic bag fee implemented by the Alliance of Grocery and Drug Stores in 2014 was effective, bringing plastic bag usage down by 47 per cent over two years, there have been no updates to council since 2016, and Pique's requests to Alliance members for updates went unanswered.

The Association for Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) pushed council to ban plastic bags for seven years before shifting its focus to the local grocery stores in 2014, said executive director Claire Ruddy.

A survey conducted by AWARE in 2011 found big support for banning plastic bags outright, Ruddy said.

"We had 250 respondents and over half of those were visitors, because the concerns at the time were 'what are the impacts on visitors and what are the impacts on businesses if we ban bags?'" she said.

"Of those surveyed, back in 2011, 85 per cent highlighted that they would support Whistler becoming plastic bag free ... it feels like the public psyche around bags, straws, to-go cutlery—all these plastic items that we see ending up in our oceans—there's more awareness of that now than there was then, so I would expect those results would be even higher now."

The plastic problem isn't being helped by confusion around what can be recycled, and the difference between biodegradable and compostable plastics, Ruddy said.

While compostable plastics, in the presence of light and air, will break down into organic materials, biodegradables under the same conditions will just break down into tiny pieces of plastic.

"So those tiny pieces of plastic are then virtually impossible for us to pull back out of the natural environment," Ruddy said.

"And the other challenge is that if compostable or biodegradable plastics end up in the plastic recycling, they actually then act as a contaminant themselves. So biodegradable items should actually just be banned."

AWARE has also been running a very successful campaign against plastic straws, urging local restaurants to either go straw-free or offer compostable straws by request.

So far more than 40 businesses have signed up.

"I think the focus should always be on reduction," Ruddy said.

"Whether as an individual or a business, we always should be looking for ways to try and eliminate wasteful items, focus on finding ways to either design them out, or to find a reusable alternative."

Next month, AWARE is hosting workshops for businesses and stratas focused on waste solutions. Find more info—along with more waste reduction tips—at www.awarewhistler.org.

Find more information about the RMOW's waste management and reduction approach at www.whistler.ca/services/waste-management.

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