06/15/2012 05:07 EDT | Updated 08/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Plastic Bags Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

We've heard it so many times many of us have simply zoned out and become numb. "We need to protect the environment before we completely destroy the earth. Let's be more resourceful. Let's recycle. Let's stop using products that deplete the ozone and contaminate the earth, the air and the oceans." Great sentiments and most of us say we're aware. But are we, really?

How often do we automatically accept our takeaway Subway sandwich in a plastic bag? What about the toiletries you pick up at London Drugs or a few grocery items? Some places don't even ask if you want a bag, it's just assumed and in the bag it goes. Even those leftovers from your meal in a restaurant which are already put in Styrofoam containers are then put in plastic bags. They may be quick and convenient but they're used only for minutes and last a lifetime wreaking havoc on the earth. Many of those plastic bags end up in our oceans destroying marine life and contaminating the food we put back on our dinner tables.

Recently, the city of Los Angeles banned the use of plastic grocery bags joining other cities like Seattle, San Francisco and now Toronto is following suit by implementing the ban in 2013. Good move Toronto.

A recent poll conducted by Angus Reid revealed that more than half of Canadians are in favor of banning plastic bags in Canada, but the other half is not so sure. It's a controversial move because some feel that it will generate an overuse of paper which ultimately harms the forests. Others say it will cause people to accumulate too many cloth bags, although that argument doesn't carry much weight. We all have a closet full of clothes, so a few cloth bags doesn't really constitute over-consumption. And of course, there are those who say they simply cannot live without their beloved plastic bags.

These bans are a positive and necessary step and they do raise awareness, but the overuse of plastic is just a symbol of a larger issue. We use disposable things without thinking about the consequences. Maybe one reason we resist the idea of banning plastic bags is because somehow we know it's just the tip of the iceberg. With just a slightly higher level of awareness suddenly you will begin to notice how many things we use once and throw out.

Why are we doing this? Besides lack of information, I think one of the root causes is we believe we are powerless to effect change. We think, what does it matter if I do this since I am only one person and what does it matter if I do something about it? Yet often it only takes one person to start a revolution and create a paradigm shift. We are far more powerful than we give ourselves credit for.

Two outstanding examples of this are environmental movements that were started by young people. In 2008 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, high school student Sean Graham created a petition to ban plastic bags. He garnered 2,300 signatures and presented it to city council. A year later, a ban was implemented. Considering Fort McMurray is the hub of the Canadian Oil Sands, it was the most unlikely place for this to occur. It's quite a sight to see burly oil workers carry their cloth bags to the grocery stores. If this can happen in the oil capital of Canada, it can happen in any city.

Another equally inspiring example is the story of Burlington, Vermont student, Milo Cress who started a project to eliminate the use of plastic straws. He was only nine years old! His efforts resulted in a meeting with Mayor Bob Kiss to discuss implementing an "Offer-first" policy where restaurants would ask patrons if they wanted a straw instead of automatically putting a straw in every drink. He was also awarded a Best Practice in the City of Burlington Award for making the city the "First Straw-Free City in America." Shortly after that, the National Restaurant Association recognized Milo for his innovation. You can visit Milo's site for more information.

When I surveyed people for my book, Stepping Up-How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, I discovered that the primary reason people didn't take action was because they figured it wouldn't matter. Yet these stories of Sean and Milo, and many others like them, prove that we are far more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. If children can effect change, what is stopping us?

It only takes one person with an idea and the courage to follow through to inspire others to follow their lead. If thousands of Canadians stepped up and challenged their cities and towns, we might just become a plastic shopping bag free country. Equally if not more important, we might discover just how powerful we really are.