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Plastic bags, including biodegradable ones like from Noah's Natural Foods, will be banned from Toronto vendors starting in 2013.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Toronto has become the first major city in Canada to ban plastic shopping bags in a surprise city council vote that the mayor denounced as "ludicrous."

Mayor Rob Ford, who predicted the ban will face a legal challenge, had asked city council to scrap Toronto's contentious five-cent levy for plastic shopping bags. Council supported the mayor and voted to scrap the tax – but then also agreed with a last-minute motion to ban bags outright, beginning Jan. 1.

"It is not a smart move by council to ban plastic bags," Mr. Ford said after vote. "I don't think it is going to hold up in court. You can't tell people they can't give out plastic bags. To me it's ludicrous."

Marion Axmith, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, warned that the move would kill jobs in Toronto and said the industry would consider all its options.

On the other side of the debate, Emily Alfred from the Toronto Environmental Alliance said the ban is a sign the city is moving in the right direction. "It sends a clear signal Toronto wants to be an environmental leader," she said.

Retailers were taken by surprise by the decision, with some warning the move will cost them more – partly to produce paper bags and also because of short-term lost sales if shoppers leave empty-handed without wanting to buy a reusable bag for their purchases.

The ban, which was supported by a vote of 27-17, calls for the city "to prohibit all City of Toronto retail stores from providing customers with single-use plastic carryout (shopping) bags, including those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photodegradable or similar."

"These bags are junk, whether you want to call them biodegradable or not. They end up in the same place: blowing around the streets or in landfill," said Councillor David Shiner, a member of Mr. Ford's executive who surprised many by introducing the ban.

"Let's get rid of the plastic bags. Let's make today a real statement. Let's tell the industry that we're not accepting your baloney any more," he said.

Mr. Shiner said he didn't know he was going to move the motion until partway through the debate. He based the language largely on Seattle's recently passed ban on bags. Retailers will still be allowed to sell or give away single-use paper bags, he said, using the example of retailers such as provincial liquor stores and some department stores who already offer free paper bags to customers.

In 2008, Seattle council passed a 20-cent fee on plastics bags, but voters repealed the measure in 2009. In December, the council passed a ban on bags, which is set to go into effect July 1.

Last month, Los Angeles became the largest city in the U.S. to pass a ban on plastic bags, which will be phased in over 12 months at an estimated 7,500 retailers. A year after the ban kicks in, retailers will be forced to charge 10 cents for paper bags.

In the case of Toronto, it's not clear whether the city has the jurisdiction to pass such a ban.

Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, urged consumers, retailers and the plastics industry to consider legal options.

"This is the most ridiculous item that was ever dealt with," he said. "As far as I am concerned we are dealing with a bunch of radical, leftist, socialists down there."

Mr. Ford said he could not explain why the proposal came from a member of the mayor's inner circle.

Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion suggested on Thursday morning that Toronto City Council was a little hasty in banning plastic shopping bags.

"I think there are implications that have to be looked at," Ms. McCallion told reporters at Queen's Park, following a meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty. " I believe that when you are going to ban something or you're going to put any legislation in, you should do an impact study, and I don't know if Toronto has done one."

But one legal expert believes the city can implement the ban. "The city probably has a strong case to defend itself if this ban is challenged," said John Mascarin, a municipal lawyer with Aird and Berlis. "They would have to pass a bylaw before this ban can be put in place, but if that is passed, the ban could be as wide-ranging as all retailers in the city."

Mr. Mascarin added that the City of Toronto Act does not specifically say the city has this jurisdiction, but "the city does have under the legislation broad-ranging powers to do all sorts of things in the public interest," including working towards the environmental well-being of the city.

Retailers were unprepared for the sudden ban. "I don't think anyone was expecting this," said Andrew Walker, spokesman for Sobeys Inc., which operates supermarkets across Canada. "This is coming out of left field. We'll have to assess it."

Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the country's largest grocer, will adhere to the bylaw, said spokeswoman Julija Hunter.

She could not say what the change may mean to business, but noted that Loblaw and its customers already have adjusted to bagless stores. The retailer was one of the first to drop plastic bags in 2007, requiring customers to bring reusable bags or boxes to pack their groceries. Today, Loblaw has eight such stores under its discount banners Real Canadian Superstore, Atlantic Superstore, Extra Foods and Maxi & Cie.

David Russell, co-owner of sporting goods and fashion chain Sporting Life, said the decision will be an added burden to retailers at a time when they're being hit by other forces, including higher federal exemptions for shoppers to spend more across the border.

Many retailers will face higher costs of providing paper bags to replace plastic bags, said Mr. Russell, past chairman of the Retail Council of Canada. "People want some kind of thing [bag or container] to carry out and put their stuff in."

He said Sporting Life will probably switch to paper bags, which can cost 20- to 30-per-cent more. "The consumer will expect something...We were certainly embarrassed when people were spending $1,000 and asking them for a nickel for the bag."

He said his stores donate the funds to Trees Ontario.

Wendy Evans of retail specialist Evans & Co. Consultants Inc. said the ban could lead to other provinces following suit. In Toronto, it will be an added cost for many retailers, particularly smaller ones, she said. It also will spur sales of reusable bags, which could offset some of the losses, she predicted.

"I'm really quite shocked ... It's a big readjustment. I'm sure some consumers will be rather frustrated."

With reports from Tamara Baluja, Marina Strauss and Karen Howlett

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