Thinking outside the (single-use) bag: How Fort Mac’s ban came to be

Thinking outside the (single-use) bag: How Fort Mac’s ban came to be

Thinking outside the (single-use) bag: How Fort Mac’s ban came to be


Sean Graham is the driving force behind the Single-Use Shopping Bag Bylaw that came into effect in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo yesterday.  He kindly provided the ELC with the following account of his experience participating in the creation and development of the bylaw. Many thanks to Sean for taking the time to write this informative and inspiring post about how citizen participation in law-making processes can help protect the environment. (Also check out “Fort McMurray launches plastic bag ban” in today’s Edmonton Journal.)

On December 8, 2009, after eighteen months and five Council meetings, the Single-Use Shopping Bag Bylaw was adopted by the Council of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).  Over two years ago, subsequent to being shown a documentary on shopping bags in social class, I concluded that the idea of living in a single-use shopping bag free community was not only environmentally friendly, but entirely feasible as well.  I decided to present the idea to the Municipal Council, and to advocate for a ban on single-use shopping bags.  My peers and I agreed that it would be extremely advantageous to have a petition that supported the cause, and thus, spent a class period gathering signatures a few days later.  I continued gathering signatures over the summer, during which time I acquired 1,868 signatures from local residents (for a total of 2,268 signatures) and the support of 9 local businesses.  On August 26, 2008, I presented the petition and the information that I had obtained about the issue to Council; the result of which was a referral of this information to the city administration for review.

Without the petition, Council would have received my presentation in one of two ways: either they would have wholeheartedly embraced the idea, or they would have disagreed and determined it to be an unpopular brainchild of one individual out of tens of thousands.  In other words, I would have been leaving the outcome of my presentation almost entirely to chance.  Conducting the petition removed a substantial amount of the probabilistic quality of the situation, which was the most significant benefit it provided, as if the outcome of my presentation would have been left completely to chance, Council would have most definitely received my presentation in the negative.

As a result of the review, a report was written that suggested not to pursue legislation in an effort to resolve the problem.  The report appeared before Council on March 10, 2009.  During that meeting, I presented my opinion, along with more information on the issue, and, after a lengthy debate, the report was turned down.  In its place, Council adopted a motion that read, “That Administration proceed with drafting legislation and establishing a budget to ban plastic shopping bags to be implemented by Council within 2010.”  Almost eight months later, on October 27, 2009, the first draft of a bylaw to ban plastic shopping bags was presented to Council for its first reading.  In the RMWB, debating is not permitted when a bylaw is read for the first time, thus, both the public and council must wait until the second and third readings are scheduled to occur before they can enter such dialogue.  The second and third readings were scheduled to occur on November 24, 2009; however, on the evening of November 24, the debate that transpired caused a deferral of the bylaw to the meeting of December 8, 2009.  The reason for the deferral was a “change” that I strongly suggested be made to the bylaw.

During my initial presentation to Council, I stated that reverting to paper bags would cause the opposite of the desired effect to occur. (When compared to plastic bags, paper bags require 40% more energy to manufacture, and create 70% more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution during their production.)  Unfortunately though, Council did not address this fact when they gave their administration direction to draft a bylaw, resulting in a paper bag friendly piece of legislation.  Therefore, before the second reading was to take place, I restated my opinion on the paper bag issue, and as a result, an amendment to the bylaw that would rectify the problem was proposed.  The discussion that followed this event, however, led to the approval of a deferral of the bylaw to December 8, 2009.  The majority of Council felt that it would have been unfair to adopt the bylaw with the amendments that evening, as the amendments were not known to the public early enough for citizens to be able to respond.

I presented to Council yet again on December 8, 2009, and despite all of the delays and elaborate discussion, the bylaw and all of the above amendments were approved by the council of the RMWB.  At the moment, the RMWB is the largest community within Canada to establish such legislation, and to the best of my knowledge, is the only community in the world to ban all single-use shopping bags.  According to the bylaw’s definition, a single-use shopping bag is a bag that is primarily used to transport goods from an establishment to the home of a consumer, and that is made of less than 2.25 millimetres thick plastic (including biodegradable plastic) or any thickness of paper.  Once implemented, the bylaw will prohibit all establishments (except liquor stores, pharmacies, and restaurants) from providing their customers with a single-use shopping bag.  This will divert between 10 and 40 million shopping bags (which is approximately 64,000 to 257,000 kilograms of plastic) from the landfill annually, therefore reducing the negative effects sustained by the environment due to the creation, use and disposal of shopping bags.  The bylaw takes effect September 1, 2010.





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  • Kevin Zimon
    Posted at 23:34h, 06 March Reply

    What is the required energy and pollution created in the manufacture of a re-usable cloth or plastic type bag. How does the energy and pollution compare to a single use plastic bag?

  • Collins Pt
    Posted at 03:17h, 26 September Reply

    Very informative!!

    In recent times, the world is becoming cognizant about the hazardous effects of plastic bags on the environment.
    Also PLA has been used to line the inside of Paper Cups in place of the oil based lining more commonly used, create Plastic ( bioplastics ) Cups, Cutlery, Carrier Bags, Food Packaging and even Nappies.

  • Cindy Chiasson
    Posted at 07:48h, 03 September Reply

    Ultimately the content of any municipal bylaw, including exemptions, is made by the municipal council. So in this case, the municipal council in Wood Buffalo had some reason for creating these exemptions. Often law-making is a practical exercise of negotiation, lobbying and compromise.

  • JT
    Posted at 14:22h, 02 September Reply

    Why the exemption for “liquor stores, pharmacies, and restaurants”? What is the justification for this, surely local grocery stores would have petitioned to be part of that exemption?

    • Sean Graham
      Posted at 10:18h, 03 September Reply

      The exemptions for liquor stores and pharmacies were created because of other laws that exist. It is required that all medication given to a customer at a pharmacy be concealed for the customers privacy, and a customer leaving a liquor store must also have their purchase concealed. Now, you may then ask, “Why not conceal the purchases in cloth bags?” There is no reason not to conceal the purchases in cloth bags, but the municipality feared that individuals would not bring cloth bags with them, and thus would be prevented from making their purchase if they are not willing to buy a new cloth bag. Once the community adapts to the new lifestyle, consumers may begin to refuse being given a single-use bag by these outlets. This would make them “practically” included in the bylaw rather than technically.
      As for the exemption of restaurants, I do not have a decent justification. This was done entirely for convenience; therefore, I believe that this exemption should be removed from the bylaw once the community has become accustomed to bringing their own shopping bags. I will also note that none of these outlets petitioned to be part of the exemption.

      Even if grocery stores had petitioned to be exempted from the bylaw, it would not have made any amount of sense to permit the exemption, as grocery stores account for approximately 80% of the single-use bags distributed. The only sensible way to exclude grocery stores would be to not have the bylaw in the first place. I hope that this answers your questions.

      • Amy Merritt
        Posted at 22:24h, 09 March Reply

        I work for an environmental organization and would like to speak with you regarding the ban of plastic bags in Fort McMurray. Is it possible to connect with you? If so, please send me an email, via the email address below.

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