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  Canada West 8 Sep 07
Discarded plastic bags and other debris threaten marine life, experts say
Kathryn Young
CanWest News Service

Eric Solomon sees the tragedies all the time: birds with their wings and legs tied together with plastic six-pack rings; a sea turtle slowly starving to death with plastic bags filling its stomach; a sea lion with fishing line cutting into its neck flesh.

"It's kind of gruesome," said Solomon, the Vancouver Aquarium's vice-president of conservation, research and education. "These animals don't have the ability to defend themselves from various kinds of trash that we're constantly throwing at them."

But he and his colleagues have learned to channel their anger and frustration into ways of helping, such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup Sept. 15-23.

About 50,000 Canadians armed with gloves and garbage bags will descend on riverbanks and beaches across the country to collect litter. Based on the experience of previous years, cigarette butts will top the list, followed by food wrappers and then plastic bags.

In 2006, they retrieved 54,451 plastic bags -- objects that have become a political hot potato in the past year, dividing towns and cities seeking to ban them and even some environmentalists.

"We very much support people using reusable bags," Solomon said. "We don't generally comment on political issues like that but we very much are in support of reducing the amount of plastic bags used."

But even some people who are ardent environmentalists don't think plastic bag bans are useful.

Chad Henderson, who sells reusable hemp and cotton shopping bags in his Nanaimo, B.C., environmental store and promotes the shoreline cleanup, said people looking for an easy way to feel they're helping combat climate change are clutching at the plastic bag issue to ease their guilt, rather than taking more effective measures.

"It's almost impossible to get a person to drive their car less, but here's this opportunity (to say), 'I can simply reuse my bags; that's what I'm going to do,'" Henderson said, adding that politicians have also jumped on the plastic bag bandwagon.

"It's much easier for them to take that on than a much bigger issue like pesticides or car use."

Leaf Rapids, Man., was first in Canada to ban plastic bags last spring, to the applause of Pierre Sadik, senior policy adviser at the David Suzuki Foundation.

"We wouldn't need as extensive a shoreline cleanup if we eliminated plastic bags," said Sadik, who is looking forward to the day when carrying a plastic shopping bag down the street will be considered a faux pas similar to driving a gas-guzzling Hummer.

Canadians use about 10 billion plastic bags per year and only one to three per cent are recycled, said Sadik.

Tofino, B.C., banned plastic bags but asked residents and businesses to comply voluntarily. The Ontario Environment Ministry has asked residents to voluntarily reduce their plastic bag use by 50 per cent over the next five years, a move endorsed by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.

"It's very political right now concerning bags," said Sophie Taillefer, responsible for organics at the government-run Recyc-Quebec. The organization will soon release a two-year study investigating what happens when two types of biodegradable plastic bags, oxo-biodegradable and hydro-biodegradable, become mixed in with recyclable plastic.

"We're waiting for the cabinet to give the OK," Taillefer said. "We've been promoting the use of reusable bags everywhere and it's been a real success."

About 80 per cent of marine debris comes from land as bags and other types of garbage get washed into the ocean.

About 90 per cent of it is plastic.

"Every plastic bag that finds its way out in the ocean joins all the ones that have come before it," Solomon said. "They're going to be out there for 500 years. The problem will continue."

Floating plastic bags look like jellyfish to sea turtles. Dolphins, seals and whales will also eat plastic and, with a false sense of fullness, often die of starvation. When plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, it is eaten by smaller birds and fish.

Plastic bags cause just as many problems on land. A bear recently left scat behind on Solomon's neighbour's lawn and it contained a plastic bag, aluminum foil and twine.

"Wouldn't it be nice if we never had to do shoreline cleanups?" he asked, adding that compostable and biodegradable plastic bags aren't the solution either.

"If one tosses a bag that's labelled biodegradable into the ocean, it still takes some time to degrade and while it is there, it's still a danger," he said. "Because it's biodegradable does not mean it's OK to toss it out your car window."


In the plastic category, compostable bags would be the most environmentally friendly. To be labelled compostable, they must degrade faster than biodegradable bags and leave no toxins behind.

While starch-based hydro-biodegradable bags, which break down in the presence of water, degrade slightly faster, they're not as strong as oxo-biodegradable, which need oxygen and heat or sunlight to decompose, says the Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Institute.

Regular plastic bags made from recycled plastic would be next down the list, followed by bags made from new plastic, said Pierre Sadik, senior policy adviser at the David Suzuki Foundation.

There's a hierarchy amongst reusable bags as well, Sadik said.

The best option is organic hemp cloth bags that can replace 500 single-use plastic bags. Hemp, which is in the marijuana family, but not the kind that's smoked, needs less water, fertilizers and pesticides than cotton to grow and it lasts longer.

Next, in order, come bags made from non-organic hemp, followed by organic cotton, non-organic cotton, and recycled plastics such as soft drink bottles.

CanWest News Service

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