Paula and Ray Letheren came from Bayfield to speak to Environment Haliburton about the success of their Blue Bayfield program which aims to eliminate single-use plastics in their town. /JENN WATT Staff

Becoming plastic-free takes long-term effort

By Jenn Watt

Published Sept. 18 2018

Reducing plastic use in the community needs a multi-pronged approach and it needs to start at the grassroots organizers from Blue Bayfield told an audience in Haliburton last week.

A blend of public education business buy-in political pressure and hands-on action needs to happen in order to make change particularly with something as convenient inexpensive and ubiquitous as plastic.

Ray and Paula Letheren of Blue Bayfield were invited by Environment Haliburton! to speak at the Enviro-Cafe at the Haliburton United Church on Sept. 11 about the work of their group and the lessons they’ve learned over the years.

Bayfield is a village in southwestern Ontario on the shore of Lake Huron. It has a population of about 1000 and much like Haliburton it is a tourist destination that attracts visitors largely due to its proximity to the water.

Problem is the Great Lakes are becoming increasingly polluted not only with plastic but also by pesticides and harmful bacteria from human activities said Ray Letheren.

Over the years improvements have been made to water quality through upgrades to sewage treatment plants along the lake changes to legislation regarding pesticides and better filtration of runoff through a tree planting campaign.

“The tree can absorb 400 litres of water a day. If you don’t have any trees that water has to go somewhere else and where it’s going is into the river and ultimately … it all ends up in the lake” Letheren said.

What also ends up in the lake in astonishing amounts is plastic. The Great Lakes have 430000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre; the oceans have 220000.

Some of that waste is actually microplastic which includes fibres from clothing tiny bits of plastic bottles and microbeads found in some body wash.

Letheren said initially his group had hoped to get the municipal government to endorse the Blue Communities project of the Council of Canadians which asks councils to recognize water and sanitation as human rights; phase out the sale of bottled water at municipal facilities and events; and promote publicly owned and operated water and wastewater systems.

However despite best efforts the council which represents a region much wider than the town of Bayfield was unwilling to endorse those principles.

Eventually out of options the group decided to start with the people – rather than the government – of Bayfield.

“Normally it’s the mayor and council that says we’re going to get rid of plastic bottles in our municipality. What we said is we’re going to tell the Council of Canadians that this community wants to get rid of [plastic bottles]” Letheren said.

They gathered support from community groups and organizations including the Guides Brownies and Pathfinders the local churches book groups the women’s shelter and chamber of commerce. Of 40 identified organizations they received 39 endorsements.

“We are very proud of the fact that we’re the only community in the world that took the initiative to get our community engaged and going this way [to become a Blue Community] rather than wait for our mayor and council” Letheren said.

But just endorsing the Blue Community moniker isn’t enough. People need to be convinced and measures put in place to make it happen.

Blue Bayfield moved forward with fundraising bringing in enough money to install five water refill stations around the village. No matter where you are in town you’re never far from free public water.

The group also distributed 2000 reusable water bottles to give out to members of the public.

Blue Bayfield has also worked to have its village designated a Plastic-Free Coastline Community by Surfers Against Sewage a U.K.-based group dedicated to cleaning up shorelines. Bayfield is the only North American site with such a designation.

In order to do this the community had to meet three obligations: get a resolution from the municipality that it supports the concept; engage local business to remove plastic items; and clean up the village twice a year.

Letheren said even though council had previously chosen not to join the Blue Communities Project it did elect to endorse participation in the plastic-free coastlines program.

Businesses were keen to sign up agreeing to remove three plastic items which could be straws take-away polystyrene containers or plastic cutlery for example. Blue Bayfield started the campaign in May and 11 of the village’s 13 restaurants have agreed.

To help with the project they distributed glass bottles to be used for water at the restaurants with a label that reads “Perfectly Drinkable Tap Water.”

Paula Letheren told the audience that the campaign to remove plastics hasn’t always made people happy. She said there have been people who were unhappy that plastic water bottles are no longer for sale in the village’s downtown area.

She said when shopping at a nearby town she asked for no plastic bags. The store clerk said Paula must be from Bayfield.

The group continues to organize educate and clean up the community. They are creating cling-on window signage for businesses to declare their plastic-free status have done fundraising alongside other social justice groups in town and have made up bamboo T-shirts (made in Canada) to spread the word.

Ray Letheren said there have also been many speaking engagements.

On Oct. 27 the village of Bayfield is hosting a special event: Solutions to Promote Zero Plastic Waste.

One of Blue Bayfield’s main messages was that in order to make change it’s best to start with the people themselves.

“There’s always resistance at the top” Ray Letheren said. “There’s never resistance at the bottom.”

The topic of reducing plastic has come up regularly at Dysart et al’s environment committee meetings.

The next Enviro-Cafe is Tuesday Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Minden United Church. The speaker will be Trent University professor Stephen Hill who will discuss the politics of climate change.

In November the group will be partnering with Abbey Gardens to host a dramatic presentation of Alanna Mitchell’s book Sea Sick.