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q&a with david shiner

Toronto councillor David Shiner is interviewed in his office about the new plastic bag ban on June 7, 2012 .JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

"Take my plastic bottle away," Toronto city councillor David Shiner tells his executive assistant when a photographer and reporter walk into his office. She plucks the bottle off the desk of the man who has, overnight, become the city's most prominent anti-plastic crusader.

Mr. Shiner made a name for himself in city council Wednesday when, after councillors voted to scrap the 5¢ plastic bag levy in place since 2009, he called a surprise vote to ban plastic bags altogether. When the motion passed, much of the city was stunned. The mayor called the vote "ludicrous."

Mr. Shiner told The Globe and Mail's Dakshana Bascaramurty why he proposed the ban.

The vote really took everyone by surprise. Where did this idea come from?

The idea was floated at council by one of my colleagues. We thought, why are we really collecting these bags? Letting these bags be used was an issue. When we instituted the initial bag levy, we asked retailers to charge 5¢ for a bag to reduce the use of plastic bags and at the same time we're going to ask them to please provide an alternative. Well, very interestingly, they started to charge 5¢ for a bag and they made them a lot cheaper and a lot thinner and they break a lot more than they did. But they didn't provide the alternative. So last year alone the retailers collected $5.4-million from the new fee and provided nothing. So the intent originally was to get rid of the plastic bag.

Why not have public consultations or debate over this instead of jumping right to a vote?

You're here in council to provide leadership – to look at an item and decide what's right and wrong. In this particular case it was wrong to let the plastic bag continue to go out to the retailers. The lobbyists that are there on behalf of the large retailers and the money they spend along with the plastics industry is huge. The general public will never get the message out.

There's been an alternative out there for 50 years. I used to bag groceries as a kid. I would stand at the end of the checkout line and put the groceries in – what? – a paper bag! And I'd take them out to people's cars. It works.

It seemed like Mayor Rob Ford was the most surprised of anyone over this. Have you had a chance to talk to him directly since then?

The mayor is wrong. And unfortunately, the mayor can't seem to adjust to change. That's a problem. Because change is coming. Change is here now.

Going forward in council, do you think this is going to change your position at all? You've been a member of his inner circle.

I manage each item at council based on the issue. Philosophically when it comes to managing our spending, reducing waste in government, providing good services, the mayor and I are in tune.

After January, when this ban is in place, what will people do when they need to line their garbage containers or they need to pick up their dog poop?

They'll do what they do now with dog poop: They'll buy the right bag which is a little poop bag that you buy that takes up one-quarter the amount of plastic that a garbage bag does.

What about garbage containers, though? I think that's what a lot of people have been using their plastic shopping bags for.

That's exactly where we want to get them out of because that's what goes to the landfill site. I've used it. I've put it in my kitchen, I've put the coffee grinds in it, I pick it up to carry it and it drips all over the floor. Because it's got a hole in it.

They'll still be using plastic bags though – whether they're buying them at the grocery store boxed in a container of 100 or if they're getting them from the checkout.

They don't have to use plastic bags. Your wet waste from your green bin takes a plastic bag and we pull it out in the process. Your dry waste doesn't take a plastic bag. It's dry waste.

I'm not a big environmentalist standing up on the roof saying you have to get rid of everything. But small steps at a time. I think this is, really, a small step.

There's been talk about potential job losses in plants where these bags are being manufactured. ...You're smirking!

I'm smirking. No one sits there and sews a plastic bag. They don't cut them by hand. The plastic bag is made by an automated machine that spits them out so fast you can't even count them, puts them together in a bundle and tosses them into a box. The labour we have is to either load the plastic in the machine or take the box away on a truck. Do that with a paper bag. Do that with a reusable bag.

Are there any other environmental issues that are on your list of things you want to tackle in council?

I have tried for 10 years to convince the provincial government that they should be as good as every other province across this country and have a deposit return system [for beverage containers].

I cannot leave without asking about the case of plastic water bottles on the ground there.

They all go in the can over here [for recycling]. If we don't have them, they go here or go in the recycling bins.

But why have plastic bottles in the first place?

There are times when I'm off to a meeting or hopping in my car so I grab them and take them.