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A woman carries a plastic bag on December 30, 2010 in Milan, Italy. The country is banning non-biodegradable polyethylene bags as of January 1, 2011. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
A woman carries a plastic bag on December 30, 2010 in Milan, Italy. The country is banning non-biodegradable polyethylene bags as of January 1, 2011. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Globe Editorial

Plastic-bag levy raises awareness Add to ...

The five-cent fee on plastic bags that Toronto City Council imposed on consumers three years ago has not been an unalloyed success.

Many shoppers, as Mayor Rob Ford argued recently, find the de facto tax – it’s actually six cents, when HST is included – a minor nuisance. And the city itself has derived no financial benefits. Not a dollar of the annual proceeds (an estimated $5.4-million) accrues to the treasury. Instead, retailers can simply pocket the revenue or, as more savvy companies have done, allocate the funds to community causes and Green initiatives.

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Now, Mr. Ford is leading a campaign to abolish the bag levy, insisting it has outlived its usefulness. Another councillor, Michelle Berardinetti, wants to turn the fee into a real tax – requiring major retailers to donate a portion of it to a new fund that would help restore Toronto’s 860,000 ash trees.

Both approaches are misguided.

While preserving our arboreal resource, now threatened by disease and the invasive emerald ash beetle, is an important goal, Ms. Berardinetti’s plan would generate $270,000 a year – a mere fraction of the estimated $60-million needed to fight the pernicious pest over the next six years. It would also require officials to force compliance, a potentially costly and time-consuming bureaucratic undertaking. And it would turn what is a voluntary fee that consumers can easily avoid into a genuine tax.

But removing the fee entirely would also be retrograde. By all accounts, it has dramatically reduced the number of bags annually used – by at least 50 per cent. More than 200 million fewer bags are in circulation. And, a result, far fewer of them end up in landfill, polluting the soil, or as unsightly litter in streets and public parks.

Moreover, the levy has clearly raised ecological awareness and thus served a laudable educational role. Increasingly, environment-conscious shoppers load groceries and other purchases into reusable cloth bags, a sensible habit that seems likely to continue.

When the issue is debated next month at the city council, the best approach therefore would be to maintain the current levy, while urging more retailers to pledge the funds to social causes. That would constitute a satisfying win-win.

 

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