GOOD riddance to “witches’ knickers,” the sassy slang guaranteed to get a giggle out of schoolchildren when used to describe white plastic bags that are blown by wind into trees and subsequently snagged on branches, fluttering like ladies’ underwear.


GOOD riddance to “witches’ knickers,” the sassy slang guaranteed to get a giggle out of schoolchildren when used to describe white plastic bags that are blown by wind into trees and subsequently snagged on branches, fluttering like ladies’ underwear.

The knickers joke is soon to be knackered, thanks to the federal government’s plan to ban the use of single-use plastic grocery bags throughout Canada.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced on Dec. 21 a plan to prohibit the manufacture and import of the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags, as well as polystyrene takeout containers, stir sticks, six-pack rings and most types of plastic cutlery and plastic straws. He said he hopes the bans will begin by the end of 2022.

Although some people wish Canada’s ban plan would go even further — it doesn’t prohibit plastic bottles, food wrappers or plastic lids — virtually no one has publicly opposed that current plan as far as it goes. In other words, no reasonable person is speaking up in defence of plastic grocery bags and polystyrene takeout containers, a silence that is understandable given the destructive impact these unnatural products have on our natural world.

Polystyrene is made from styrene, a petroleum product known to be hazardous, and other dangerous chemicals such as benzene. When thrown away, polystyrene eventually breaks into microscopic particles that pollute soil and water, likely for centuries. The ban of this potentially toxic foam product can’t come soon enough.

Likewise with disposable plastic bags. They are recyclable in theory but, in practice, many bags end up in dumps such as Brady Road landfill in Winnipeg instead of in recycling bins. Like polystyrene, plastic bags are not biodegradable and, for generations to come, will litter land and pollute water.

As Annie Leonard, an American proponent of sustainability, puts it: “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.”

With a full year before single-use plastic bags are banned in Canada, grocery shoppers have lots of time to explore options, such as acquiring bags made of material that can be repeatedly reused and machine washed when necessary.

Here’s a tip: while waiting at tills at grocery stores, survey the reusable bags the smart shoppers are already using until you see a type of bag you like. Some use organic cotton carry-alls, burlap totes or canvas sacks. Their produce may be in mesh net bags they brought from home.

Even though the pandemic means we stay two metres from other shoppers in checkout lines, it’s OK to compliment someone on their nifty eco-friendly bags and ask where they got them.

Some shoppers might gripe about the bother and expense of buying their own reusable bags, but — in theory, anyway — the spent money could be recouped. Stores currently add the cost of throwaway bags into their selling prices, so eliminating the bags will give businesses the opportunity to shave a teeny amount from the prices charged to shoppers.

Ideally, Canada’s forthcoming bans will inspire discussion and awareness about the burden our throwaway culture inflicts on the Earth. The groan of a planet that is being shamefully soiled would be eased somewhat if more people reconsidered their use of throwaway containers and packaging that can’t be recycled.

A better attitude to adopt can be summed up by the slogan “refill and reuse.” The phrase represents a philosophy of consumer behaviour that aims to minimize trash and choose containers that can be used repeatedly. It can mean bringing a refillable cup to coffee shops, and using bulk bins for foods such as cereal and rice that can be portioned into reusable containers.

It can also mean voting with our wallets to support companies that design their products to be eco-friendly. An example of such a product is the SodaStream home appliance, which that lets consumers forgo soda cans and plastic bottles in favour of making their own flavoured fizzy water with reusable bottles and compressed CO2 in returnable cylinders.

It can also means reusing goods instead of always buying new, refinishing antique furniture and resisting the fashion industry’s pressure to buy new clothing even though our closets are full.

People of an older age will recognize the “reuse” concept is nothing new. Milkmen used to deliver their products in containers that were refilled repeatedly, empty flour sacks were cut up and repurposed as dish towels, jam jars had an afterlife as drinking glasses or flower containers.

While older generations used to reuse due to economic necessity — “waste not, want not” — today’s necessity for reusing is environmental — “waste not, spare the planet.”

Canada’s upcoming ban on some plastic items is a start, but just a start. It will be a further success if it inspires more people to go beyond the ban and further curtail their consumerism so they walk lightly on the Earth.

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.