Comox Strathcona Waste Management is taking another look at plastic bags. Black Press file photo

Single-use bags divide Comox-Strathcona waste board

CSWM will also take a look at effect of COVID-19 on finances

The threat of COVID-19 has meant changes for many organizations, including the one that manages waste disposal for the Comox Valley and Strathcona regional districts.

At the most recent meeting for Comox Strathcona Waste Management, staff presented board members with a report on how the coronavirus has affected ways of conducting business in recent months. All of this has had an effect on CSWM finances, so the staff has recommended looking for ways to improve efficiency.

“The service responded quickly and efficiently to the pandemic by implementing improved safety measures like protective shields, increased cleaning, restrictions on cash handling, increased distancing for staff and the public, and several small changes,” said Marc Rutten, general manager of engineering services.

These were implemented by staff at CSWM facilities but also by the member municipalities, resident associations and island communities.

Some CSWM projects are continuing to move forward, such as the organics composting site, the closure of a couple of non-Recycle BC recycling locations and other capital projects.

RELATED STORY: Recycling depots in Courtenay, Campbell River to close

“However, there are some projects that have been affected or delayed by COVID,” Rutten said.

One example is a delay to a campaign against single-use plastics, as plastic bags were used in stores more frequently in the spring as part of efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

“We didn’t think it was good timing to implement or promote a ban on single-use plastics,” he said.

CSWM’s education programming around waste reduction is also being shifted from school classrooms and in-person events to more of an online effort.

Part of the report also recommends the board complete a review of the operating and capital budget to look at the impact of the pandemic and possible ways to use money more effectively.

Some board members had reservations about communities not moving ahead to cut out plastics or foam containers, even if temporarily.

“I feel like we’re going in the total opposite direction,” said Alex Bissinger, a Comox alternate director on the board. She questioned whether there was scientific research to back the use of plastics in reducing the spread of the coronavirus. “I don’t know if there’s any lobbying we can do…. In my mind, I feel like we’re regressing rather than progressing when we have so much waste right now.”

Rutten said staff members agree and do not want to drop plans against single-use bags, but they did not think the timing is right.

“This definitely is something that we want to pick up in the future, once this pandemic is over,” he said.

One suggestion raised by Daniel Arbour, a CVRD director, was to find out if there were any studies into waste composition to see if people are throwing out more plastic bags of late. Other members argued for the need to move ahead, especially as some stores have reinstated the use of reusable bags.

“I think if we’re going to try and wait till after this pandemic, we’re going to be waiting years,” said board chair Arzeena Hamir. “I think the community has already adapted.”

Other members questioned the emphasis being placed on plastic bags. Brenda Leigh, a director for the Strathcona Regional District, said she re-uses her plastic bags regularly and expressed doubts about a bag ban.

“I think that issue is just a boutique issue,” she said.

Charlie Cornfield, a Campbell River director, said not all member communities have brought in bans on the bags and that the material might not amount to a large percentage of the two regions’ waste stream.

“We can end up spending a lot of time, effort and dollars on a very small portion of our waste stream,” he said. “Meanwhile, the big, costly items go unaddressed.”

Chief administrative officer Russell Dyson said, unlike municipal bans, the role for the CSWM board was not of regulation but of voluntary compliance.

“What is suggested here is a program to encourage voluntary restrictions,” he said. “It may not be the largest component of waste, but it certainly is one that is on the public’s mind.”

After the discussion, the board passed the staff recommendation to review solid waste service to identify any cost savings or efficiencies in time for the next board meeting in September.

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