Sarnians to use paper bags for their leaves – for now

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley discusses options with Coun. Nathan Colquhoun during a recess called after council deadlocked in a 4-4 vote on the contentious issue of using plastic bags for curbside leaf collection last week. Troy Shantz

Cathy Dobson

Starting July 1, Sarnians will be required to use paper bags to collect yard waste for composting —for the rest of this year, anyway.

City council agreed last week to temporarily ban the use of plastic leaf bags following four months of public debate and a convoluted series of votes.

“It’s obvious to me that this issue matters to the community,” said Mayor Mike Bradley, who favours plastic bags for the millions of kilograms of leaves collected and sent to the city’s composting site each year.

Council had agreed in April to ban plastic permanently and switch to paper bags, a move expected to save $254,000 annually. But residents responded with an almost unprecedented number of phone calls and emails.

Mayor Bradley said 80% to 90% of the feedback favoured the continued use of plastic bags for yard waste. But Coun. Brian White said most emails he saw supported paper.

Even those who can’t vote weighed in, White noted at the May 6 council meeting. Twenty-three Grade 3-4 French Immersion students at Errol Road School sent councillors hand-written letters supporting the switch to paper for environmental reasons.

White and Bradley did agree, however, that paper bags are a stopgap measure because Ontario is moving toward a green waste diversion program that doesn’t involve paper or plastic bags.

Following the decision to ban plastic in April, Coun. Margaret Bird convinced councillors to reconsider and debate it again.

Bird argued paper consumes more water and generates more greenhouse gasses during its manufacturing and shipping. And banning plastic will cause job losses, both in the plastics industry and among those hired to debag leaves at the compost site, she said.

But Marcotte, the company contracted to collect city yard waste, informed council by letter that finding debagging staff is difficult. What’s more, if the city backtracked on its decision it would cost the company an additional $75,000 in new equipment, CEO Tracey Kaplin said.

Those two points helped convince Coun. Terry Burrell to change his mind. “I went into the meeting thinking I’d support plastic,” he said.

Burrell said he mulches most of his own leaves and considers himself environmentally aware.

“But being on council isn’t just what’s good for me,” he said. “We have to think about what people want. This is an issue with a bigger response than most.”

Many seniors and residents in the city’s heavily treed north end told him paper bags are expensive and fall apart in wet weather.

“Then you have the reality that we make plastic, so it’s not a simple argument in Sarnia, because this is what we do.”

Burrell, White and councillors Nathan Colquhoun and Mike Stark did not support Bird’s push for plastic. With Coun. George Vandenberg absent, the vote to continue using plastic bags was lost in a 4-4 tie.

That led to two more votes, one to use paper bags on a trial basis and another to use paper permanently. Both failed, and Mayor Bradley called a 10-minute recess.

“I wanted to find a way to move forward and have a clear direction on this,” he said. “The contract starts July 1 and we needed to put an end to the debate.”

Colquhoun argued that under the rules or order Bird’s failed motion meant the decision to switch to paper should stand, but Bradley disagreed.

Finally, Stark, saying he’s frustrated by council repeatedly rehashing issues, proposed using paper for the rest of the year to see how it goes.

That idea passed.