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Halifax considers ban on plastic shopping bags

Industry representative says a province-wide ban would put all retailers on a level playing field

As the fight against the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag ratchets up around the world, Atlantic Canada's biggest municipality is looking to join the growing ranks of cities and countries banning, restricting or taxing single-use plastic bags.

Halifax council asked city staff to examine a plastic bag ban on Tuesday, a move that would follow the lead of Montreal, where single-use plastic bags were banned at the start of the year, and Victoria, where a ban takes effect July 1.

Mayor Mike Savage will also pen a letter to Nova Scotia's premier calling for a province-wide ban on plastic bags -- often called "Sobeys bags" in the Maritimes regardless of their provenance.

But the city is not waiting for the province to act, with Halifax solid waste manager Matthew Keliher promising to report back to council within a year.

Plastic bags, which take centuries to break down, litter the environment and inundate the world's oceans, are also turning up in seafood, says Mark Butler with Halifax's Ecology Action Centre.

"They are clogging our oceans, and can be a hazard to marine wildlife," said Butler, policy director for the environmental advocacy organization. "We're finding microscopic plastic particles on the beach and in seafood."

It's a problem that has prompted countries including France, Italy and China to implement restrictions, taxes and outright bans.

During a lengthy debate Tuesday, Halifax councillors expressed support for curtailing -- or banning -- single-use plastic bags.

Richard Zurawski told council there is a "moral obligation" to future generations to halt plastic bag use, noting that plastics are produced using fossil fuels and contribute to carbon emissions and climate change.

"Plastic use has tripled over the last decade. We have to stop the plastic tide," the councillor for a largely suburban area west of downtown said. "It's a climate apocalypse and we're staring it in the face and we have a chance to make a difference with this plastic issue. I don't want to see us miss this opportunity."

Some councillors, however, expressed concern with rushing into a ban, and questioned what residents would do with pet waste and items like recyclable paper, which must be separated from other recycling in Halifax and put into plastic bags like a grocery store bag.

Still, Halifax councillors appeared prepared to work through those issues, suggesting the city could introduce blue bins for recycling and black bins for garbage, as is the case in other cities, rather than use plastic bags.

The decision by Atlantic Canada's biggest city to investigate a possible ban on plastic bags wasn't simply an altruistic act of environmental stewardship.

Halifax, as with many municipalities around the globe, found itself suddenly without a market for its so-called film plastic last July when China announced it would ban the import of plastic waste by the end of the year.

With a law preventing the city from dumping plastics in the landfill -- and recycling facilities unable to process film plastic including shopping bags, cereal box liners and the wrapping around water bottles or juice -- the municipality soon found itself with a growing pile of plastic.

Earlier this month, the provincial Environment Department stepped in and granted the city a temporary exemption, allowing it to dump plastic in its landfill.

But the crisis pushed council to examine its options including eliminating or reducing plastic shopping bags.

Jim Cormier, Atlantic Canada director of the Retail Council of Canada, said the preferred option of most retailers is for government to allow stores to come up with their own plan to reduce plastic bags.

"Profit margins are thin and there is a ton of competition out there so customer service is king," Cormier said, explaining that a retailer-led effort would result in better customer service while still achieving reduction targets.

In 2009, for example, Toronto required retailers to charge five cents for single-use plastic bags, a move that was accompanied by a public education campaign. There was a 53% reduction in waste after the fee went into effect, according to a staff report, though the mandatory fee was later rescinded.

Still, Cormier said if the city insists on moving towards a ban, retailers would prefer it be province-wide, rather than one municipality going it alone.

This would ensure a level playing field, he said, and would prevent customers from simply altering shopping habits, putting stores in cities with a ban at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, the city of St. John's has repeatedly called on the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to usher in a province-wide plastic bag ban.

"The retailers know that the writing is on the wall with plastic bags and they would prefer a provincial ban to just some cities deciding to ban bags," said Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary. "Our hope is that the province will step up and be the first province to ban plastic bags. We could be leaders."

But even if Newfoundland moves quickly, it might encounter competition.

"We use to be a leader,'' said Halifax councillor Tony Mancini, who put forward the motion calling on staff to examine a plastic bag ban. "It's not a race but I want to be at the leading edge of things like recycling."

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