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The Globe and Mail

Across the planet, the plastic bag abounds

Birds share a perch with a flock of plastic bags in Changxi, China.


I am nearly the same age as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and grew up in the same suburb where he now lives. We have, I assume, some interests in common: An affinity for the Maple Leafs? An appreciation for Platinum Blonde? But we clearly diverge on Toronto's plastic-bag fee.

Way back when Rob and I were kindergarten terrors, my own little world was bounded by Kipling Avenue, Dundas Street and Mimico Creek – the mighty Mimico. My friends and I loved to venture into the shady ravine, crawling under weeping willows and wading through the murky water in search of crayfish. Along the way, we stumbled upon plenty of plastic bags. Loblaws and Dominion (to my childhood knowledge the only food retailers in the world) seemed to be spewing them out in ever-increasing numbers. Light as a feather, they drifted on the wind and ended up everywhere, hung up on trees, snagged on bushes and dangling from driftwood in the creek, which they occasionally dammed.

I moved away from Toronto many years ago. But I still care about Mimico Creek, the lands I've wandered to, and the pervasive nature of plastic bags.

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Across the African grasslands, they are known as African Flowers: Polyethylene shopping bags, in every colour of the rainbow, cling to the thorny bushes from Kruger National Park to Kenya, from Namibia to the Nile.

In the Argentine pampas, where the wind blows relentlessly, groves of Patagonian Christmas Trees have created a surreal and haunting landscape. Scattered across the landscape are Calafate bushes cloaked in plastic bags, escapees from dumps and landfills. Locals will tell you the bags started appearing about a decade ago and have never gone away. Instead they keep coming, more and faster.

On the high Tibetan plateau, one can drive for days without seeing another human being, but stop for a stretch or a snack and you'll surely find a fluttering bag close at hand, clinging to a rock or a twig or anything else that stands up on this vast flat expanse – fence posts, prayer wheels and stupas.

Several years ago I paddled 800 kilometres along the largely uninhabited northern coast of Borneo. In those 60 days there was not a single beach I landed on where an ugly tangle of plastic bags (along with discarded flip-flops and water bottles) did not mark high tide.

In Bangladesh, plastic bags routinely clog drainage systems, and as far back as 1988, the capital city of Dhaka was under knee-deep water for over two months when street drains covered in bags could not release the surging waters. Bangladesh responded in 2002 by becoming the first country to impose a nationwide ban on polyethylene bags.

Others have followed. Rwanda, Somalia, Italy and Tanzania have banned non-biodegradable single-use plastic bags entirely. So have the city of San Francisco and three Australian states. China, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda have banned very thin plastic bags (usually defined as 20 microns or less).

Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands have all introduced bag fees. The bustling city of Delhi has issued a blanket ban on the manufacture, transport, use and even storage of plastic bags.

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And this very week – just as Mr. Ford announced his intention to abolish Toronto's five-cent bag fee – India's Supreme Court issued a stern warning: Unless a complete national ban is placed on the plastic bags that are choking rivers, lakes and sewers, they will pose a bigger threat to the next generation than the atomic bomb. Those are strong words, but they give a sense of how serious an international problem plastic bags have become.

Toronto, of course, does not face the same problems confronting many of the cities and countries mentioned above. Canada in general has better garbage collection, far bigger spaces and less population density. But that does not mean plastic bags are any less of a problem. They can just be harder to see, and the harm may take longer to manifest itself.

Arguments against Toronto's bag-fee system centre largely around the minimal percentage (by weight) that bags contribute to landfills. This misses the point entirely. It is precisely because the bags are light – and essentially valueless – that many inevitably blow away.

The fee system Mr. Ford inherited may be a mess, but abolishing it is not the solution. The city and its residents deserve to see the money collected put toward environmental restoration projects – city staff have proposed using it to fund preservation of Toronto's tree canopy – rather than staying with the businesses that collect it.

Canadians are proud of our natural heritage and the wild and rugged nature of our country. No one wants Canadian Flowers or Canadian Christmas Trees in Toronto, or anywhere else that the winds blow, whether that means Peterborough, James Bay or Baffin Island.

Moving backward on the bag fee when the rest of the world (for the most part living in conditions far more dire than the average Torontonian) is so clearly moving in the other direction, when the detrimental effects of plastic bags have been so clearly demonstrated, and when there are viable alternatives so readily available is not just illogical. It's lazy, and greedy too.

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Bruce Kirkby is an author and travel writer.

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