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Toronto's 'ludicrous' plastic bag ban was a rush move

In this November 26, 2008, Josee Moore receives plastic biodegradable plastic bags when shopping at Noah's Natural Foods on Yonge St., Toronto.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Mayor Rob Ford made a game attempt to claim victory after city council passed a startling new rule on plastic bags. "We achieved what people wanted me to do." People wanted to get rid of the 5-cent retail fee for plastic bags, he said, "and I did it. It's another huge victory for the taxpayers."

Only one teensy problem: Along with getting rid of the fee, Toronto is getting rid of the bags. As of Jan. 1, 2013, councillors decreed, it will be verboten for your local supermarket or convenience store to give out plastic bags, for a fee or otherwise.

No matter how he tried to spin it, it was a major blow for the mayor. He started the day hoping to score a small victory after a series of council losses by ending the bag fee. He ended it with council sticking a finger in his eye by banning the bags altogether, something his predecessor David Miller never even tried despite all his green aspirations.

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Mr. Ford called it "ludicrous." It was certainly hasty. Usually with a big decision like this, councillors ask city staff to issue a report on the pros and cons, then debate it in committee before bringing it to a council meeting for a decision. This time it came out of the blue, without any discussion in the media or among the public.

The whole idea only got to the council floor because one councillor wanted to use the money that retailers collect from the bag fee to help regrow the city's tree canopy. Sentiment for a ban grew from there.

One anti-bag councillor handed around a flyer from Seattle on that city's bag ban, which is to start on July 1. Another played a mock nature documentary, narrated by no less than Jeremy Irons, on the long life of the "majestic plastic bag." A few speeches followed and then, boom, a vote.

There was an audible gasp when the motion went through, stating council's determination to "prohibit all City of Toronto retail stores from providing customers with single-use plastic carry-out (shopping) bags, including those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photo-degradable or similar effective January 1, 2013."

Proponents of the ban argue it will reduce litter and stop landfills from filling up with plastic bags. But bag use is already down by half since the bag fee took effect three years ago and by one estimate plastic bags take up less than 1 per cent of landfill space.

The argument that they don't break down in landfills for thousands of years doesn't make much sense. That is a good thing. They just sit there, inert, without degrading and entering the air or water in some other form.

In any case, plastic bags are recyclable. You can toss them in the blue box for shipment to the recycling plant instead of the landfill. Many households practice the second of the three Rs by reusing plastic bags to line garbage bins, hold school lunches or pick up after the dog. In short, the things are darned useful.

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Many consumers will now go out and buy plastic bags in bulk for household needs. Others will use paper bags, which consume more energy to produce than plastic ones. It is hard to see how the environment comes out ahead.

If there are good, solid, factual arguments why there is no better option than banning plastic bags, fair enough. Let's hear them. Instead we got a rushed decision on a feel-good measure. Start hoarding those bags, Toronto.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More


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