The Island

Jack Knox is an award-winning columnist and author, now in his 30th year with the Victoria Times Colonist.

Here’s something to remember about the impending nationwide ban on single-use plastics that Justin Trudeau announced this week: its roots are in a report written by a second-year law student at UVic.

The university is also where, 1 1/2 years ago, three members of Parliament huddled with the head of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre to get the ban ball rolling.

The story began in August 2017 when the law centre published Seven Reforms to Address Marine Plastic Pollution. Written by student Meaghan Partridge for the T. Buck Suzuki enviro group, the 44-page report proposed a framework for dealing with the plastics problem.

That was important to Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns, who had spent much of his rookie term sounding the alarm about the problem of plastic in the ocean, only to be told by the Ottawa establishment to come back with a solution. Partridge’s report provided such a blueprint.

It was Victoria MP Murray Rankin, another Vancouver Island New Democrat, who asked North Vancouver Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson to join him for a meeting in the offices of the Environmental Law Centre in December 2017. Calvin Sandborn, the centre’s legal director and an old friend and colleague of Rankin (the former chair of the Environmental Law Centre) was there, too. Johns couldn’t make the trip from his home in Tofino, but joined them by teleconference.

In essence, Sandborn says, the meeting set the stage for cross-party support for action on plastic pollution. “We’re so used to seeing the partisan divide.” It was gratifying to see co-operation.

Sandborn said Wilkinson — then parliamentary secretary for the environment, but since promoted to minister of fisheries and oceans — urged Johns to make a submission to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in advance of the G7 summit Canada was to host in 2018.

Rankin later put a copy of Partridge’s report in McKenna’s hands. “Damned if she didn’t run with it,” he says. He also gives credit to Wilkinson, whose integrity he admires even though they differ on issues like the Trans Mountain pipeline. “I really like him.”

The cause got a nudge in May 2018 when Sandborn and superstar author Margaret Atwood co-authored a Globe and Mail op-ed calling for a change to how we deal with plastics. The piece linked to Partridge’s paper and a second Environmental Law Centre report, this one by UVic student Renata Colwell, showing how specific federal legislation could be used.

When the G7 summit came around, Canada was joined by four other nations (the U.S. and Japan were the holdouts) in pledging that by 2040 all plastics produced in their countries would be recycled, reused or incinerated to create energy.

“It’s not often that we can push an issue from Vancouver Island that becomes the focus of the G7,” Johns said Wednesday.

In November, Canada’s environment ministers agreed to develop a way to eliminate plastic waste and cut marine litter. In December, Johns’s resolution calling for a national strategy to fight marine plastic pollution passed unanimously in the House of Commons. On Monday, Trudeau announced Canada will ban single-use plastics by 2021, though his statement was light on detail.

Johns, who has risen in the Commons almost 100 times to talk about single-use plastics and marine pollution (it got to the point, he says, that other MPs looked at him as though he were nuts) expects to hear more from Trudeau on the issue.

As for Partridge, who is now articling with a firm in Vancouver, it feels a bit surreal to have made such an impact so early in her law career.

“It actually made a difference,” she said of her report. “If I don’t do anything else, at least I’ve done that.”

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Meanwhile, Saanich council this week officially adopted its ban on plastic bags at the checkout. The bylaw, which takes effect Jan. 1, will still allow merchants to supply customers with paper bags, but they must charge at least 15 cents. There are fines for disobeying the new bylaw, but they won’t be applied until June 2020.

Sooke council adopted a similar bylaw Monday. It will take effect Jan. 1, though businesses will have until July 1, 2020, to use up bags they have already purchased. Esquimalt and Colwood are on track to bring in bag bans, too. Victoria’s prohibition took effect in 2018. A bag-and-straw ban that came into force in Tofino and Ucluelet on Saturday will be followed by a similar measure in Qualicum Beach on July 1.

Jack Knox is a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist.

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