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Tips to Free You From Plastic

Bags, wraps, cups and Styrofoam: here are some steps to curb your single-use waste

By Barb Wilkinson

May 28, 2019 •

When Melissa Gorrie, '04 BSc(Hons), '07 LLB, went grocery shopping, she would get mad. Everywhere she looked she saw plastic: shopping bags, produce bags, even fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. The environmental lawyer talked about the problem with her husband, Sean Stepchuk, '04 BCom, '08 LLB, also a lawyer and outdoor enthusiast.

"Instead of just getting angry and frustrated, we said, 'Let's do something about it,' " Gorrie says. Shortly after that, in January 2018, she spotted an online petition to ban plastic bags in Edmonton. She called the organizer and found an opportunity to use her background in law reform and policy to grow this petition into a broader campaign to develop a single-use plastics bylaw.

The work, which Gorrie and Stepchuk now undertake as part of an organization they call Waste Free Edmonton, looks to be gaining traction. On Feb. 1, Gorrie presented to a city committee studying the issue in Edmonton. A proposed framework for a single-use bylaw is expected this summer.

Waste Free Edmonton has come up with a plastic reduction tip sheet for businesses, along with a circle of volunteers to liaise with those businesses. The group has also created Waste Warriors, a plastic reduction tool kit for elementary school students.

The drive to do away with single-use plastic is part of a culture change that considers the cost of convenience. "I see Waste Free Edmonton growing beyond single-use plastic to address energy waste, idling, fashion and food," Stepchuk says. "We'd like to see Edmonton be a leader."

Gorrie and Stepchuk offer a few easy strategies that anyone can use to curb plastic use.

1: Learn to love reusables

We use approximately 200 million plastic bags a year in Edmonton, more than 200 per person. Most are in use for only a few minutes but stay in the environment forever - plastic never fully breaks down. "Keep reusable bags by your back door or in your car," Stepchuk says. "If you're going for a coffee, use your own mug." The couple keeps a kit of bags, containers and mugs in the car.

2: Think ahead on grocery day

There are a lot of other ways to reduce plastic waste at the grocery store. For example, lots of items don't need to be bagged - produce, such as apples or tomatoes, can be left loose or put in reuseable produce bags. A non-profit called Boomerang Bags #Yeg sews and distributes free reusable produce bags. You can also bring your own containers to buy items in bulk to avoid unnecessary packaging. "Question what you're putting in single-use bags and be willing to push back if a store doesn't want you to use your own containers," Gorrie says.

3: Get takeout without the trash

Gorrie has made a lot of presentations in the past year and one of the suggestions that most surprises people is the idea of reuseable containers for when you want to pick up restaurant food on the way home. "We call the restaurant and tell them we have our own containers. Most are happy to use our containers and some give us extra food," she says. Gorrie also keeps containers in her bag or car, which come in handy for leftovers, too. Elsewhere, food vendors are innovating by offering reusables.

4: Re-evaluate recycling

Only about 10 per cent of the plastic we put in our blue bags is recycled, for various reasons such as contamination or the fact that a plastic bottle can only be recycled once. Carpets and many clothes end up in the landfill. "We do a lot of wishful recycling," says Gorrie. She says we should continue recycling but treat it as a last resort. Gorrie recommends the City of Edmonton's WasteWise app (or similar resources in other cities) to see if what you're discarding belongs in the blue bag, a reuse centre, a hazardous waste drop-off or the landfill.

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