woodland caribou and plastic bags

People never learn. Or they learn the same things over and over. I think this all the time. What's prompting the thought today is yet another battle over an Endangered Species Act. The debate currently taking place in Ontario sounds exactly like the ones that occur regularly in the States: the old false bugaboo of environment vs jobs.

In this version, the provincial MPs get to look like they're protecting the environment, when in reality amendments added to the legislation render it almost useless. The culprit? The need for votes from a misinformed public.

Toronto Star political columnist Ian Urquhart explains.
A legislative committee is expected to give approval today to a bill to protect Ontario's endangered species, ranging from the woodland caribou to the eastern prickly pear cactus.

But with a provincial election looming in the fall, some of the politicians casting their votes may also be on the endangered list, for the Endangered Species Act has become a major political battleground at Queen's Park.

It did not start out that way. During debate in the Legislature last month, there seemed to be an all-party consensus in favour of the legislation, which was given second reading by a vote of 39-1. The lone dissenter was Cambridge MPP Gerry Martiniuk, a Conservative.

In the subsequent committee hearings, however, the MPPs were deluged by appeals to water down the legislation from farmers, native people, unions, hunters, trappers, developers, municipalities, and mining and logging companies.

The testimony was quite emotional at times. Picking up on an environmentalist's suggestion that we could live with any diminishment in economic activity as a result of the legislation, Thunder Bay Mayor Lynn Peterson declared: "Economic activity is not a thing. It's people who get up in the morning and go to work and raise their children and pay their mortgages." And while most presenters started off by saying they support the "objective" of saving flora and fauna from extinction, they then recommended amendments that would effectively gut the legislation, including:

- Restoring political discretion to the decision on whether to list a species as endangered. The bill would give that authority to a committee made up of scientists and persons with `aboriginal traditional knowledge." The environmentalists say that is essential to the integrity of the legislation.

- Loosening the definition of the "habitat" to be protected. The bill's definition is "an area on which a species depends, directly or indirectly, to carry on its life processes." Again, environmentalists see this relatively broad definition as essential.

- Deferring to existing "forest management plans" between logging companies and the crown. Environmentalists say this proposed change would essentially exempt the companies from the act.

- Compensating companies and property owners negatively affected by the act. The government is proposing a "stewardship fund" of $18 million over four years, but has ruled out full compensation. The environmentalists say compensation would drain money away from efforts to improve habitats.

In committee today, the Conservatives and the New Democrats – with a bow to their respective rural and northern bases – will present amendments reflecting some or all of the above.

Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay, who is responsible for the legislation, suggested yesterday that the opposition is succumbing to "fear-mongering" about job losses. He said that the Endangered Species Act, as written, is flexible enough to ensure that the livelihoods of northerners and rural Ontarians aren't threatened.

I was disappointed to see that on the provincial level, the NDP sides with the Conservatives.

Also on Ontario environmental policy, I have a question about the proposal to drastically reduce plastic bag usage.

In general, cutting down on unnecessary bags and packaging is an excellent idea, something we all can and should do. But what about bag re-use?

We've always used plastic supermarket bags for trash bags. In the past 25 years, I've probably bought a total of two boxes of trash bags for household use. If we didn't have plastic bags from our grocery shopping, we'd have to buy trash bags on a regular basis.

Buying extra bags specifically made for trash certainly seems more wasteful and less environmentally conscious than re-using bags that once held groceries. Isn't this a major flaw in thinking about reducing plastic bag usage? Or am I missing something?


Mike said...

Plastic/Grocery/Garbage bags will always be a problem. There are ways to recycle grocery bags, however it's far from perfect and isn't widespread (in the US at least).

There is a biodegradable plastic garbage bag that will degrade in sunlight or air. However, you don't get much sun or air in a waste dump, so that doesn't work very well.

I guess the only answer is to reuse your bags as much as possible. We do the same thing you do with grocery bags. We just think it's the best thing to do, absent of a better solution.

Alison said...

"Am I missing something?"

Laura, perhaps just that we shouldn't be using plastic bags for groceries in the first place.

I'm waiting for major grocery stores to cotton on to the idea of selling cheap cotton bags with their company logo writ huge on the side to their customers to use and reuse instead.

L-girl said...

Laura, perhaps just that we shouldn't be using plastic bags for groceries in the first place.

Right, but that's my point. What would we then use for garbage bags? We have to put garbage in something, right? If I didn't have the grocery bags, I'd have to buy bags for first use, just for garbage. No? That's my question.

On the reuseable bag front, I have a great, incredibly sturdy bag from Planet Organic, bright red, made entirely from recycled plastic drink bottles. Holds up to 50 lbs. Not that I can carry 50 lbs.

But still, my garbage question remains.

Thanks for stopping by, Alison.

MJ said...

It's more a question of 'Reduce' than of an outright ban. If you're using your reusable bag for the vast majority of your groceries and only have a couple plastics bags a week, it's not really directed at you (You'll note that not a single element of the Ontario proposal is mandatory--it's all voluntary). I imagine it's aimed at the people we get 50+ of such bags a week.

I think with incentives, you can see a drastic reduction, though not total. In Japan, a grocery store chain we used gave you a stamp card that gave you a dollar equivalent off the next purchase. A small thing that made a big deal. Plus, each plastic bag a customer doesn't use is normally a (very marginal) money saver for the store.

If the bags are free, you get the problem of overuse and waste. If they start charging, for example, 2 cents for a bag then the people who gain at least 2 cents worth of benefit out of it will get the bag and those that gain very little from it will abstain. The essential goal of something like this is to find a level of waste/pollution where the costs of the pollution don't exceed the benefits gained from it.

L-girl said...

If you're using your reusable bag for the vast majority of your groceries and only have a couple plastics bags a week, it's not really directed at you

Thanks, MJ. This makes more sense. I have more than a couple of bags a week, but I re-use them all.

(You'll note that not a single element of the Ontario proposal is mandatory--it's all voluntary).

I would have no problem with a mandatory reduction, by the way. I have no issues with that. Voluntary recycling doesn't work as well as mandatory recycling. Mandatory seat-belt laws and speed limits save lives. I don't mind harmless requirements that increase the greater good.

If the bags are free, you get the problem of overuse and waste.

Yes. One of the grocery chains here, No Frills (the low-cost branch of the Loblaws companies), charges $0.05 for a bag. I'm sure that helps.

M@ said...

I like the No Frills/Price Chopper/Food Basics approach, with 5 cents a bag or bring your own or re-use the carboard cartons. Not only does it promote recycling, it makes me think very carefully about how many bags I need. (Their bags are bigger and stronger than free ones at regular supermarkets, too.)

I'd be all in favour of this approach everywhere. I wouldn't complain about 10 cents a bag, either.