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Marcus Gee, Columnist (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Marcus Gee, Columnist (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

A price for plastic bags? What a load of garbage Add to ...

The new law requiring Toronto retailers to charge customers five cents each for plastic bags is good, green common sense, you might say. The cost is tiny and the benefit clear. But before we hail another triumph for progressive greenery, let's think about this for a second.

There is more sanctimony than sense behind this rule, which took effect Monday and which will require even the hard-pressed corner store guy to post signs explaining the five-cent charge. In a series on waste, the Toronto Star reminded readers that "twenty years ago, mothers smoked while reading bedtime stories to their children." The message is that, one day, using a plastic bag instead of a cloth one will seem just as wrong. From that point of view, the bag charge is just one more way to get evil-doing, plastic-using citizens to change their misguided ways.

Yet plastic bags are already one of the most heavily recycled items around. People use them to line garbage bins, which means they don't have to buy garbage bags at the store. They use them for kids' school lunches. They use them to pick up after their dogs. In short, plastic bags are darned useful - so useful that most people keep a stash of them somewhere in the kitchen or the broom closet, ready to grab.

Even if you don't reuse them, you can chuck them in the blue bin. The city now accepts them for recycling, so the discarded bags will end up living another life as a new bag or plastic deck furniture.

Why, then, is Toronto targeting the poor plastic bag? The city claims that its aim is to reduce litter and reduce the amount of garbage going to landfill.

But the (admittedly biased) Canadian Plastics Industry Association says that plastic bags make up only a tiny share of litter - less than 1 per cent in one Greater Toronto audit, and less in others. It also claims that even if all plastic bags went straight in the trash, they would make up less than 1 per cent of residential solid waste by weight.

Toronto, obviously, doesn't agree that bags are so harmless. It estimates that the city generates 457 million bags a year and if all of them went in the trash (which they don't) then they would create 2,745 tonnes of garbage and take up 6,900 cubic metres of landfill. What is more, says a city report, "plastic bags do not degrade significantly over time and therefore this volume of plastic bags will persist if landfilled."

But that is one of the plastic bag's virtues. Sitting inert in a landfill, it doesn't decompose and let off methane gas that could escape into the atmosphere or degrade and poison the soil. So the main problem - if there is one - is the space it takes up in the ground.

But is that really such an insuperable hurdle? Since the city bought the Green Lane landfill site near London, it has had a backstop for the landfill sites in Michigan that it used to rely on so heavily. Toronto now has landfill space until at least 2024 or 2025, more than enough time to find new sites, even taking into account the huge regulatory and not-in-my-backyard difficulties. If Ontario has anything in abundance, it is space.

And, contrary to what we have been told to believe, modern landfills are marvels of environmental management that have next to no impact on the land around them. Impermeable, high-tech membranes prevent liquids from escaping into the groundwater. Methane is funnelled off and burned to produce electricity.

Yet Toronto has poured massive energy and resources into its ambitious plan to divert 70 per cent of waste from landfill by 2010, a target that now looks impossible to meet (it is at only 44 per cent now). Diversion mania explains the loopy scheme to ban the disposable coffee cup. It explains the fleet of rolling blue, grey and green bins delivered to households across the city, with a user fee for garbage. And it explains the nickel-bag regime that started yesterday.

Hamilton and Calgary considered putting a price on plastic shopping bags, but decided there were better, less invasive ways to reach their garbage-reduction goals. Not our Toronto. Here, they're going to make you pay to buy one of those awful (and awfully useful) things - and hope you feel guilty every time.

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