Wade Wiebe letter to Steinbach City Council

Members of Steinbach City Council

Steinbach City Hall

225 Reimer Avenue

Steinbach MB  R5G 2J1

 Dear Councillor,

 This letter is prompted by Ms Kehler's letter, which was recently addressed by Council and which raised the subject of environmental initiatives in Steinbach. Ms Kehler raises many points, each of which deserve more full  consideration. However, since the topic of banning or regulating plastic bags was the only one addressed by each of the councillors, this letter too is limited to a discussion on that proposal.

Nevertheless, it is my strong opinion that the subject of sustainability merits more than just a cursory 10-minute round-table discussion. It only takes a few keystrokes to add the words “sustainable” and “environmentally responsible” to pamphlets and vision statements[i], but these are worse than worthless if attended by weak, obsequious action. In contrast, if citizens and Council take them seriously, and act on them with true leadership, these principles have the potential to effect a critical and positive shift in our community.

 The principal arguments Council brought forward for opting not to consider a plastic bag by-law were as follows:

Enforcement, Location and Size, Public Buy-in, Risk of contamination, Unintended consequences, The Biodegradable solution, “Steinbach is already clean”, and Household use. 

In the interest of balanced discourse, below are just a few rebuttals to each of these points. 


Banning plastic bags requires no active enforcement beyond that which is already in place for existing by-laws. With a fine for non-compliance stipulated by the by-law, warnings and penalties can simply be issued for infractions on the basis of information from the public (if required). 

Location and size (relative to Leaf Rapids)

The argument was raised that the success of the ban on plastic bags in Leaf Rapids is attributable to its isolation and small size. It is not clear why proximity to other centres would inhibit implementation of a by-law banning distribution of plastic bags by businesses in Steinbach. Further, community size presents no obstacle to the above-mentioned form of enforcement. Laws banning, mandating fees, or taxing plastic bags are currently in place in the following places, each larger than Steinbach (11,000):

City of San Francisco[ii] (775,000), City of Adelaide, Australia[iii] (1.2M), City of Toronto[iv](2.5M), Ireland[v] (4.4M), Taiwan[vi] (21.5M), South Africa[vii] (48.7M), China[viii] (1.3B)… among many others. 

Public buy-in

The argument was made that we should proceed with initiatives that have significant 'buy-in', rather than imposing restrictions on an unwilling public. Under this policy, one must assume that the Realty, Business and Education Tax Levies enjoy this level of massive buy-in. Might environmental stewardship not fall into the same category of necessary action? If not, let's consider the two following points. Firstly, it should be noted that for a ban to suffer 50% resistance, the sum of supportive and indifferent citizens would have to be less than half the population. Secondly, the fact is that youth under the age of 25 compose approximately 36%[ix] of the population. It is easy to conceive that these stakeholders would favour restrictions, yet their voices are rarely if ever heard. That being said, of the entire current population of Steinbach, this group composes very nearly 100% of current citizens that will be directly affected by our policies in 60 years. As this city's only living members of its 2070 citizenry, their views deserve far more weight in the debate than any other demographic. What do they have to say? 


There are reports[x] that reusable bags may become breeding grounds for bacteria and harmful pathogens. Similar reports identify high risk levels of contamination in the following: Cutting boards[xi]; telephones, kitchen sponges, faucets[xii]; wet laundry, ATM buttons, health club mats, and remote controls[xiii]. While all of this may be true, we can't avoid these things just because they're too dangerous when dirty. Is it not reasonable to believe that the public is capable of taking the common-sense precaution of washing reusable bags once a week?      

Unintended consequences

The only unintended consequence mentioned (aside from pet waste handling, addressed below) is that paper bags will replace plastic bags. Paper bags do require considerable resources to make, and are argued by some[xiv] to be even more environmentally harmful than plastic. However, this argument is equally valid both ways. Continuing to use plastic bags is known to yield unintended consequences – namely: death of wildlife, toxification of soil & water, waste management costs, current and future pollution remediation costs, etc, etc. Neither is there any reason that paper bags, rather than reusable canvas bags, should replace plastic at all. Even if only 80% of plastic were replaced by reusable bags, and the remainder by paper, paper would have to be 5 times worse than plastic, only to cancel the benefits. Even at that, there would still be no disadvantage. 

Biodegradable solution

Biodegradable plastics are becoming more available every year, and will hopefully live up to their claims of environmental performance. They will become a part of the solution, but will never address the core issue. The very mentality of single-use plastics is irresponsible and outdated. As long as we wait for a convenient solution that's just around the corner, we will always find excuses not to act. At which point does it become indefensible to pollute “just a little longer”? In the best case scenario, if we immediately undertake to switch over to biodegradable plastics at 20% a year: 1,890,000 non-biodegradable bags will yet be discarded before the changeover is complete (assuming we've already started, which we haven't). Unfortunately, there are still many concerns about the biodegradability, environmental benignity, and embodied energy required for biodegradable plastic bags[xv]. It is unconscionable to wait for technology to solve our problems so that we don't have to. 

Steinbach is already very clean.

Plastic bags did not represent a large portion of the litter collected at the Pick-up & Walk.

Steinbach has already reduced its waste.

These points each address the issue by arguing that it does not exist, or that it is not significant. This demonstrates a dangerous complacency. While Steinbach may be considered clean by some standards, it was still found necessary to organize a Pick-up & Walk event. Apparently, of the trash collected at this event, only a small portion was plastic bags. Is it then truly a comfort to reflect that the remaining portion of  945,000 bags either blew out of town or were “safely” buried in the earth this year?

[2.86[xvi]x109 bags per yr in Canada / 3.33[xvii]x107  Canadians x 1.10x104 Steinbach residents = 945,000 bags/yr in Steinbach]

Is it a further comfort that those bags that do not escape to kill wildlife and pollute the environment will remain on the land for at least 500 years[xviii], and almost certainly much longer? Should we consider that the business catchment area of Steinbach (50,000[xix]) actually more than quadruples these figures, or the fact that the full effects and lifetime of plastics are actually not known by any authority? 

Household use

THIS is truly a problem. It is perhaps the problem. If a ban on plastic bags effected no lifestyle change beyond using reusable bags, it would be in place now. It really boils down to garbage liners and pet waste.

There is no perfect replacement for the plastic bag, but we can survive like our predecessors only decades ago, by putting newspaper at the bottom of the can and putting it out on the curb. Fortunately, the City's continuing support and advocacy for composting will have the added advantage of keeping organic liquids and compostables from being kept in a garbage can in the first place. Pet waste can be managed with compostable bags, or paper, or whatever the ingenuity of human kind can devise. This is a challenge much to be preferred over the alternative of reversing the effects of continuing to use millions of plastic bags to serve a trivial function. The reality is that these small conveniences are some of the first and smallest that we will be forced to relinquish as we begin to face the realities of a finite Earth. We must ask ourselves whether conveniently bagging our waste is more important than ceasing to produce it – a question with an answer too obvious to state. 

It is clear that each of the above challenges are easily overcome, or do not exist at all. The subconscious desire to maintain the status quo and not to upset a comfortable lifestyle is among our greatest weaknesses. And yet, with (or without) strong leadership, we are capable of seeing the world beyond our noses and choosing right action. Regardless of public policy, each of us is capable of separating want from need when it comes right down to it. The argument against plastic bags can be summarized by the following three statements:

Plastic bags are not good.  We do not need plastic bags.  We should not use them.

I therefore strongly encourage Council to serve Steinbach's current and future citizens by acting on its stated values, and demonstrating leadership to other communities in our province and throughout the country. I also ask Council to seriously address each individual point in Ms Kehler's letter, along with any others offered by the public on the subject of possible sustainable initiatives for Steinbach. I add my voice in offering any assistance I can in gathering information and researching ideas to aid in this endeavour. If only a single initiative is found suitable for our circumstances, we will have gained critical information for directing our efforts. 

A few points in support of a ban on plastic bags in Steinbach: 

· Financial gain to retailers. An equitable, uniform method for reducing or eliminating the cost of plastic bags without losing business.

· Financial gain to the municipality. Reduced cost for current and future waste management / pollution remediation.

· Reduction in plastic-caused fatality to local and global wildlife.

· Positive progressive image for Steinbach.

· Aesthetic improvement for Steinbach & surrounding landscapes.

· Education - providing an example through environmentally conscious public policy.    

· In the first 5 years alone:

·           Elimination of 4.7 million plastic bags from the waste stream (not including non-Steinbach residents)

·           Reduction equivalent to 104,500L[xx] of gasoline in petroleum consumption due to manufacturing. 

 Thank you for continuing to work in the interest of the community. 


Wade Wiebe, 204B Lilac Bay, Steinbach, MB, R5G 2C9, 204-253-0943 

cc: Councillors: Elbert Toews, Abe Hiebert, Roy Enns, Michael Zwaagstra, Art Rempel, Jac Siemens

      Mr. Jack Kehler

      Mayor Chris Goertzen

      Editor, Carillon News

      Editor, Steinbach Online.com

[i]     Steinbach Community Plan - http://www.steinbach.ca/resource/File/Corporate_Services/Official_Community_Plan_-_Sept._08.pdf

[ii]     NPR.org “San Francisco Plastic Bag Ban Interests Other Cities” - http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89135360

[iii]    AdelaideNow.com.au “Plastic bag ban hailed a success” - http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/plastic-bag-ban-hailed-a-success/story-e6frea83-1225794301180

[iv]    Toronto.ca - http://www.toronto.ca/garbage/packaging_reduction/5centbag_bylaw.htm

[v]     BBC.co.uk “Irish bag tax hailed success” - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2205419.stm

[vi]    Christian Science Monitor “Wrap that in plastic? Not in Taiwan, unless you pay” - http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0615/p07s02-woap.html

[vii]   BBC.co.uk “South Africa bans plastic bags” - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3013419.stm

[viii]  CBC.ca “China bans plastic shopping bags” - http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2008/01/08/china-bags.html

[ix]    Statistics Canada; 2006 Community Profiles - http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2006/dp-pd/prof/92-591/details/Page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=CSD&Code1=4602044&Geo2=PR&Code2=46&Data=Count&SearchText=Steinbach&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=All&Custom=

[x]     National Post “Back to plastic? Reusable grocery bags may cause food poisoning” - http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/theappetizer/archive/2009/05/20/back-to-plastic-reusable-grocery-bags-may-pose-public-health-risk.aspx

[xi]    National Food Safety Database “Bacteria on Cutting Boards” http://foodsafety.ifas.ufl.edu/HTML/il114.htm

[xii]   Science Daily “Common Household Items Could Be Sources Of Infections” - http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/05/000525072756.htm

[xiii]  Today.msnbc.com “Soap up! The 12 germiest places in your life” - http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/21423163/from/ET/print/1/displaymode/1098/

[xiv]  Appropedia.org “Paper versus plastic bags” - http://www.appropedia.org/Paper_versus_plastic_bags

[xv]   Wikipedia.org “Biodegradable plastic” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodegradable_plastic

[xvi]  Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council “Focus on Plastic Bags” - http://www.saskwastereduction.ca/resources/plastics/bags.html

[xvii]  Google Public Data Inquiry “Population of Canada” - http://www.google.com/publicdata?ds=wb-wdi&met=sp_pop_totl&idim=country:CAN&dl=en&hl=en&q=canada+population

[xviii] Slate.com “Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507?” - http://www.slate.com/id/2169287

[xix]  Manitoba Business, March 2007 “A Growing Rural Powerhouse” http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_7657/is_200703/ai_n32220097/

[xx]   Resource Conservation Manitoba  -  http://www.resourceconservation.mb.ca/news/Policy/bags_jan08.html [1.9L/person/yr x 11,000 people x 5yrs]