Skip to main content

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s latest retail political gesture is just about the Doug-Fordiest leadership move conceivable. It has all the elements that are quintessentially him: booze, consumer politics, populist appeal, and a sprinkle of triviality. It also happens to be a good idea, which is why Mr. Ford will coast happily on his fumes, even if it’s emblematic of the more cartoonish elements of his premiership.

Last weekend, Mr. Ford wrote a letter to Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) president and CEO George Soleas, asking that he reinstate the use of paper bags at the Crown corporation’s stores. The LCBO stopped offering paper bags with purchases this past September, a move it said would save the “equivalent of 188,000 trees each year” and “create a more sustainable Ontario.” It phased out plastic bags 15 years ago.

Citing the cost of reusable bags, Mr. Ford wrote that, “at a time when Ontario families are already struggling to make ends meet, every additional expense counts.” (Please, Mr. Soleas, my children – they are so hungry. They need their vodka.) He also noted that “this change has left people stuck openly carrying alcohol in public” (which they would do if they forgot to bring a reusable bag to a grocery store that sells alcohol anyway). In response to Mr. Ford’s letter, the LCBO has signalled it will resume offering free paper bags, with more details available in the coming weeks.

The change is a win for Mr. Ford and a win for common sense, which has been perilously hard to come by when it comes to policy-making on plastics and other packaging. Ottawa’s ban on what it calls “single-use plastics,” which was waylaid by a Federal Court ruling in November, never made much sense considering that studies have shown that the majority of consumers were, for example, reusing plastic grocery bags to line their garbage bins. Paradoxically, the ban has forced consumers to buy plastic bags that are truly single-use, in lieu of the dual-use free bags they used to get from grocery stores (while simultaneously accumulating an obscene number of reusable tote bags).

Research has also shown that from a production perspective, the environmental impact of reusable bags – and even paper bags – is much more significant than that of plastic. A U.K. study showed that reusable cotton bags have to be used at least 131 times, and paper bags at least three times, to equal the environmental impact of a single plastic bag. Plastic bags simply require less energy and less water to produce, though they of course take longer to break down and contribute to plastic pollution.

Still, various jurisdictions have continued chugging along at efforts to regulate the use of plastic and other single-use materials. Late last year, Toronto’s city council passed a bylaw requiring that the distribution of single-use take-away items (such as straws, napkins, etc.) only be provided at a customer’s request. Calgary’s city council approved a similar bylaw in January, 2023, but began the process of repealing it earlier this year in response to massive backlash.

Mr. Ford has tapped into that same sentiment here, which is something he has generally excelled at over the course of his premiership. Indeed, he’s comfortable taking on small, everyday irritants: the elimination of bags at the LCBO, the planned beer tax increase, license-plate renewal fees, the carbon tax, highway tolls, density in neighbourhoods run by NIMBYs, and so on. He knows how to look at polling – on immigration, for example – and blurt out that he wants to see “100 per cent” of enrolment spots at the province’s universities be taken up by students from Ontario (his office later claimed that he was referring only to medical schools). Mr. Ford is less adept at acknowledging the implications of his popular promises (what happened to your projected surplus, Mr. Ford?) and reconciling his seemingly contradictory views and policy proposals (how can the Premier say he will “use every tool in our tool box to build more homes,” but oppose building fourplexes in neighbourhoods?)

So while Mr. Ford’s paper-bag coup is a small win for him personally, it doesn’t help the perception that his government is a glorified consumer-rights watchdog, fighting for your paper bags and toll-free roads while Ontarians line up at emergency rooms because they don’t have access to a family doctor and struggle to find affordable housing. Ontario’s paper-bag prince might have just saved you $2.95 for a reusable bag at the LCBO, but his government’s unprecedented spending, and thus its cost to service its debt, will end up costing Ontarians much more.

Mr. Ford is great at the small stuff. It’s just such a nuisance he’s tasked with running an entire province, too.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe