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City Hall gets an earful after council bans plastic bags for leaf collection

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Cathy Dobson  

After years of resident opposition, city councillors banned the use of plastic bags for yard waste collection without a single word at their most recent meeting.

“I walked out of there thinking, ‘That was amazing,’” said Coun. Brian White, long a proponent of paper bags.

Previous councils have supported plastic bags over paper for decades, arguing plastic creates less mess and means employment for “debaggers” at the compost centre.

But starting July 1, all yard waste set out for curbside collection must be contained in paper bags purchased by the homeowner.

Sarnia was one of the last municipalities in Ontario to ban plastic bags, White noted.

“Maybe it finally passed because we have new councillors looking at it with fresh eyes who recognize this is the norm,” he said. “Or maybe they were convinced by the savings involved.”

Sarnia will save an estimated $254,000 a year by not employing people to individually slice open and dispose of plastic bags at the St. Andrew Street site.

The city says residents can opt to mulch or compost fall leaves to create natural fertilizer. But most Sarnians prefer to rake and bag.

In 2017, a whopping 4.7 million kilograms (10.4 million pounds) of leaves were collected, equivalent in weight to 10 Boeing 747 jumbo jets. And the vast majority of it was in stuffed into plastic.

The city looked into a “bag tag” fee to offset the cost of debagging. But staff estimates each tag would cost $1, a price considered too high, said White.

He sits on the Sarnia Environmental Advisory Committee, which offered its full endorsement of ditching plastic for leaf collection.

“We also support education around becoming more eco-friendly and shifting attitudes toward returning lawns to a more natural habitat,” White said.

But he admits it won’t be easy.

“It’s quite simply the right thing to do, but I imagine we’ll have those who protest.”

Indeed, the phones are ringing at City Hall with complaints, confirmed Bryan Prouse, Sarnia’s manager of operations services.

“We’ve been getting tons of calls. A lot of people are not afraid to voice their concerns.”

Meanwhile, also banned starting July 1 are plastic bags for recyclables. That decision was made last year when the city awarded the new recycling contract to Emterra Environmental.

Emterra, the only company to bid on the contract, prohibits plastic bags, which frequently get caught up in sorting equipment, said Prouse.

Under the new rules, the only item allowed at the curbside in plastic bags is shredded paper, he said.

“It’s the only exception and residents must use clear blue plastic bags available at the hardware store.”

All other recyclables must be placed in blue boxes or covered blue garbage bins.

Prouse said staff are braced for more public complaints but added, “People will learn to accept it. Before long they’ll get used to it.”

A public relations campaign called “In the Bin Sarnia” will be launched this spring.

Meanwhile, blue boxes will be sold for $7 at the Sarnia Home Show, at Clearwater Arena, April 5-7.  White and other volunteers are staffing the city’s booth.

Point Edward and St. Clair Township are also banning plastic bags for yard waste on July 1.

Point Edward is also banning plastic bags for recyclables the same day, while St. Clair stopped on Jan. 1.

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