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Berardinetti wants to redirect plastic bag fee to saving city's trees

Plastic bags from Gap store are carried by people shopping on Bloor St., Toronto.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Toronto councillor Michelle Berardinetti wants to save the city's trees 5 cents at a time.

She's hoping a new staff report will help redirect the plastic bag fee to saving the city's green canopy and halt Mayor Rob Ford's plans to scrap the tax.

The report will be released Monday as part of the mayor's executive committee agenda. It recommends the city ask major retailers to donate a portion of the estimated $5.4-million in bag fees collected each year to restoring trees, The Globe and Mail has learned.

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The city faces a major challenge replacing its aging stock of trees, a situation that will be made worse by the destruction caused by the emerald ash borer. Replacing trees attacked by the invading insect is expected to cost the city $10-million annually over the next six years.

Ms. Berardinetti says the proposed new fund would be a way to create a partnership between the city and businesses on a critical issue. "It is one of the most significant challenges facing our city," she said. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of it?"

Ms. Berardinetti listed the fund as one of her top priorities when she sat down recently with the mayor to discuss the coming year. She requested the staff report at a meeting of the executive committee earlier this year. Mr. Ford repeatedly has vowed to kill the 5-cent charge the city imposed on plastic bags under former Mayor David Miller. He has not given any indication yet whether he will support the new plan.

While a city bylaw requires merchants to charge a nickel as a way to discourage the use of plastic bags, money collected from the fee remains with retailers. Under the staff proposal, the city's Office of Partnerships and the Parks, Forestry and Recreation department would approach retailers, asking them to donate to a new fund. Merchants could claim a charitable donation and could display a notice to indicate their participation in helping the city's trees.

But even if retailers are receptive to the idea, the report cautions that the money raised will not come close to meeting the city's needs. To be effective, the city should target its efforts to recruiting large retailers, it recommends, who account for the largest portion of bag use. At the same time, it finds many large merchants already direct funds from bag fees to environmental and community causes. For that reason, it estimates the city may only collect 10 per cent of the bag fees from these stores or about $270,000 annually.

Garden expert Mark Cullen, who is working to bring together Toronto non-profits dedicated to doubling the city's tree canopy, said any money raised through the city's efforts could be multiplied three or four times through other private donations.

"It's a fabulous idea," Mr. Cullen said.

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Ms. Berardinetti said several councillors have expressed support for the plan, including Jaye Robinson, another member of the executive committee.

The executive committee will consider the report at its next meeting on May 14.

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