Small Towns Wrestle with the Plastics Puzzle

For Sean Stepchuk, the North Saskatchewan River valley outside of his home in Edmonton, Alberta, is one of his favourite places to explore. The river valley, which is North America’s largest urban parkland, offers stunning views, beautiful paths for walking and biking, and even an edible forest full of wild asparagus, onions, mushrooms, and berries for those who know where to look.

One thing Sean doesn’t like to see while in nature: litter from single use plastics. 

Single use plastics like coffee cups, takeout containers, and plastic straws and utensils, often used for just for a few minutes before being thrown into the trash, create a lot of waste. These plastics seem to be everywhere. 

STOP WASTE AT THE SOURCE

In 2018, Sean co-founded Waste Free Edmonton, a non-profit working to reduce waste by stopping it at its source.

They do this through education around the impacts of plastics, especially wasteful single use plastics. They try to approach this work in fun and innovative ways, including a podcast called Becoming Less and their YouTube channel, Wine and Waste, where the hosts drink wine and talk about, you guessed it, waste!

Never too old to start learning about waste: a Waste Free Edmonton community presentation pre-pandemic.

Sean and his team also work with city councils in their region to implement single use plastic strategies, including bylaws and policies banning the use of wasteful plastics.

More recently, Waste Free Edmonton worked with the small community of Devon, Alberta, on their own plastic bag ban. The community of 6,500 people implemented a plastic bag ban at the start of 2020, just before the pandemic hit.

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE

Research from the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been created since the 1950s. Of those plastics, 60% have ended up in landfills and other natural environments, including our rivers, lakes, and oceans.  

Even when we try to do our best and recycle these items, there is a lot of confusion about what is and is not recyclable.

Sean thinks if people knew that only a small percentage of plastic materials can be recycled or that the act of recycling is an energy-intensive process, perhaps they would think twice about the way they consume.

“Thinking that recycling is the answer doesn’t motivate people to change their habits,” he says.

Sean adds in school, they teach kids the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Recycling is the last step, yet for many people it is the only step they take. The first step has always been to reduce how much we use.

“The blue bag system made sense. It made it easy for people to recycle, but the unfortunate consequence is that people just assume that if they put it in their blue bag, that it will be recycled,” he says.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

SMALL TOWN ALBERTA TAKES A STEP TO REDUCE

In late 2018, the town of Devon started talking about ways they could reduce waste, including how they could cut back on single use plastics.

Justin Janke, Devon’s communications director, truly believes in the power of local government because he has seen government hard at work.

“Local government is where you can affect the most change; your local governments are the ones who are working to get the funds needed to accomplish goals.”  

Residents of Devon, Alberta, love their green spaces; it’s important to keep these places clean from wasteful garbage. Photo taken pre-pandemic.

Justin knows just how hard the city of Devon worked to accomplish their goal to reduce waste at the source. The city didn’t rush into their plastic bag bylaw; instead, they conducted a business survey and engaged with business owners directly for three months before moving forward with the bylaw.

Sean’s team at Waste Free Edmonton also hosted two meetings in Devon: one for the public and one for the Chamber of Commerce. In these meetings they answered questions and concerns and talked about both the pros and cons of recycling and of bylaws.

The City also paired up with the local arts society to get the community involved in what Justin calls, “community led engagement.”

To get residents excited, the arts society ran a contest asking people to design artwork that would later appear on reusable bags. They then handed those bags out to every household in Devon.

The two winning designs from the contest in Devon, Alberta.

Justin still sees people carrying their custom bags around town.

“The community came together with the government to accomplish this goal,” he says, and that is something that makes Justin proud.

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?

Sadly, with COVID-19, people become concerned about contamination of reusable items in public spaces like grocery stores. “The bylaw is still in effect, but the City relaxed the rules so stores could use plastic bags again,” Justin says.

Still, this isn’t the end of the town’s fight against waste.

For grocers like Trail, BC’s David Ferraro, the pandemic has shifted the ways they operate. Ferraro Foods has been a trusted grocery store in the Kootenays for 70 years, and David prides himself on keeping up with the trends.

“When you listen to what consumers want, you can see the trends coming, and our customers wanted less plastic,” David says.

Ferraro Foods has been a family business for 70 years; David Ferraro and his sister, Kim McMartin, in front of their Trail location.

In 2019, Ferraro Foods made a bold move and got rid of plastic bags, shifting to paper or boxes. The aim was that customers would bring their own reusable bags because when it comes right down to it, shifting to reusable is the goal.

“Paper bags are not the answer, transporting paper bags to a place like Trail burns a lot of fossil fuels. It’s all about reusable,” he says.

David understands that the Kootenays is a tourist destination and that he needs to offer customers options. In an ideal world, everyone would have their own reusable bags. He even started offering affordable options at the till.

“I don’t make money on the reusable bags sold at the stores. It might look like a loss at first, but in the end, not having to buy plastic bags saves money,” he says.

With COVID-19, like many others, David had to make adjustments, including bringing back plastic bags. The decision was hard, and it had more to do with ensuring his workers were safe and felt safe. Right now, employees have to remain six feet apart, which means there is no space for the staff who would usually pack groceries into customers’ reusable bags. For now, with the space available, it was just easier and safer for cashiers to pack groceries into plastic store bags. 

In their Rossland location, paper and boxes are already back, and reusable bags aren’t far behind.

“As soon as everyone is vaccinated, we’ll be off to the races,” David says.

For now, they have had to think out of the box, including putting sheltered tables outside where customers can take their groceries and pack them into their own reusable bags and boxes.

It’s not ideal, and it’s not what they had in mind when they first got rid of plastic bags. David knows that as soon as it is safe to do so, they will move forward with their waste-reduction plans, which he hopes to expand beyond just plastic bags.

Jill, a longtime employee of Ferraro Foods, rings a customer through at their Rossland location where paper bags, boxes or reusable bags are the options.

David, who has lived and worked in Trail his entire life, has seen trends change over the years. People are eating healthier and wanting food sourced more locally; customers also want to see less packaging.

He thinks we can take waste reduction to another level. He would love to see a regional recycling depot that involves people in their own recycling.

“When you see it firsthand, you realize you have to do more.” David thinks if people saw how much waste we create, they might want to take more action.

“Just putting it out on the curb means we don’t know what happens to it next.”

In David’s opinion, if we are going to recycle, we should do it properly and that means figuring out ways we can take care of our own waste.

WE CAN ALL DO OUR PART

For Sean, with Waste Free Edmonton, there are simple steps people can take to do their part. He sees waste as one of the easiest things we can tackle because there are direct actions we as consumers can take. There is a lot of power in purchasing. Sean wants people to ask themselves when they are shopping: is this worth the waste?

“There are simple tricks; if someone knows to just keep their keys with the reusable bags, or their own coffee mug in their car, they will have these items with them when they need them,” he says.

Businesses save a lot of money by simply getting rid of single use plastics. One bar in Edmonton told Sean that they saved $1,800 dollars a year just by getting rid of plastic straws; the savings to municipalities is even greater when they factor in how much less they will have to put through waste management systems. And that just seems like a win for everyone.

It’s a family tradition: David’s son, Brad, works up the hill at their Rossland Ferraro Foods location.

As someone who works in local government, Justin knows how important it is for community members, businesses, and government to work together to accomplish goals. He would like to see industry and manufacturers taking more responsibility. “Put the cost back on the manufacturers who produce wasteful items,” he says.  

David knows that there are always mixed feelings with change of any kind, yet as soon as it becomes a daily routine, it becomes normal.

Growing up in a small community like Trail, David knows his neighbours and his customers, many of them by name. He knows that people in the Lower Columbia really think about these types of issues and that they want their towns to be healthy and beautiful. He also knows that there are steps we can all start taking today. As a business owner, David is happy to be the one to make big changes because he knows it sets a good example for his community. Together we can make our communities healthier and cleaner, and one of the easiest ways to do that is reducing our waste.