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Good Idea or Not, the Bag Ban Came About in the Wrong Way

Council's decision was impulsive. The hard work is yet to come.

Photo by {a href=""}Bitpicture{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

What city council did the other day seems almost like magic. They cast some votes, and now all our plastic shopping bags will disappear on January 1 of next year.

Except, in reality, government isn’t that easy. Creating the ban was an impulsive move that will necessitate months of work by civil servants as they try to figure out exactly how to implement the thing. And the scary part is that even council doesn’t know what the outcome will be.

Some commentators are holding Mayor Rob Ford responsible for the suddenness of the ban. They say his lack of leadership and his ill-advised decision to push for the elimination of the five-cent bag fee were what led to Wednesday’s surprise vote. Even if that’s the case, it’s hard to fathom an outcome like this. Things don’t usually work this way.

The motion by Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale) that brought the ban into being was a 30-word-long addendum to the day’s debate over the future of the five-cent bag fee. For comparison, here’s a bag-ban ordinance that was approved by Seattle’s city council in December.

Don’t bother reading it if you’re not a giant municipal-politics dork. The essence is this: it’s a few pages of text that describe in detail exactly how the ban will work. It specifically excludes produce and bulk food bags from the ban, and creates a five-cent charge for recyclable paper shopping bags. It also sets forth penalties.

When Seattle’s city council voted on their ban, they had all of that information in front of them. They knew exactly what they were voting on.

Toronto city council, meanwhile, has absolutely no idea what the final bag-ban bylaw—which they’ll have to approve on some future date—will look like. They voted a significant change in the life of the city into existence sight unseen. At best, that’s irresponsible.

There is even some question as to whether the ban is legal. If council had brought the measure forward in a more organized way, they would have known that in advance, too.

The usual procedure for adopting a bylaw as significant as this one is lengthy. City staff send a detailed report to one of city council’s committees. The report contains an expert analysis of the matter at hand. In the case of the bag ban, there probably would have been a survey of other cities that have implemented their own bans, a legal opinion as to whether the ban would hold up in the face of a court challenge from bag manufacturers, and some recommended implementation points (that is, how and when to institute the ban). Committees also hear presentations from members of the public. They’re good forums for consultation with residents and business owners.

Los Angeles, whose city council voted for a bag ban in May, followed exactly that procedure. Only after months of careful consultation with city staff, politicians, residents, and businesspeople—not to mention celebrity endorsements—did they finally vote “yes.” (You can see the paper trail here.)

Toronto’s city council did none of that.

Whether or not the bag ban is a good idea is something we’ll be debating as a city for months to come. But this much, at least, is clear: the amendment that brought the ban into existence wasn’t good governance. It was a bunch of hand-wavey crap.


  • Andrew Marshall

    Funny, when it’s something Ford wants to do, like build subways (or Ferris Wheels, or casinos….), his supporters chant “enough talk, no more studies, do something now!” Anyone pointing out the consequences of sudden turnarounds in policy are shouted down as socialists/communists/libtards/etc. Is it too much to ask that the mayor and his brain trust put a little more thought into their future plans for the city? Don’t answer, it’s a rhetorical question.

  • Anonymous

    While I may agree with the ban, I don’t like how it came about. More thought should have been brought into it, along with all the “if”, “and”, “but”, “therefore”, and other legalize to make it correct.

  • Anonymous

    If you listen to Shiner, he indicates that councillors have been discussing the issues surrounding this for close to 15 years. They thus have LOTS of information in front of them and around them to be able to make such a decision.

    Intuitive thinking often comes from a body of knowledge that is gained over time through experience. i.e. Its less intuitive then people understand.

    And when it all comes down to it, sometimes you have to get messy and make mistakes to get things done.

  • fullannexation

    I would be in favour of an increased fee for bags, but the ban will not be pleasant. I reuse those plastic bags for my small garbage can like nothing else. People shouldn’t rely on plastic bags, but a ban harms people who reuse them. I think banning plastic bottles would be a better move, but probably out of the scope of the city’s power.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t like the idea of an increased fee for bags because it is tantamount to a licence fee to pollute.

  • TOres

    I really don’t see where this all came from. Are people just now complaining about the 5c charge? Is city council now suddenly concerned about the hazards that the plastic bags have on landfills and the environment? I for one, as a lot of others I am sure, reuse these bags for garbage and composting. So who is going to supply me with cheap bags for this now because clearly paper will not work. This is just another example of how city council thinks they have some brilliant idea and push it through without thought for how this will affect city residents. Maybe one day we will see some forethought before council rubber stamps their ideas, but until then, we will have to put up with snap decisions made by them, much to our dismay.

  • stopitman

    I don’t know if it’d necessarily be illegal, as Ford claims and as the article you link to indicates (which is based off of Ford’s limited knowledge). Both the Municipal Act and City of Toronto Act give powers to the city to control substances/goods that are believed to be bad for the environment, and this has been backed up in court cases in Ontario and Quebec.

    For those who reuse plastic bags (of which I am one), if our grandparents (or your parents, if you’re older) survived growing up by using the paper bags as liner, you’ll be 100% okay. Heck, Torontonians already have it the easiest for green bins where any plastic can be a liner, when I was at school in Waterloo only brown paper bags or newspaper were acceptable and where I grew up only paper or approved biodegradable plastics were allowed.

    Just be thankful they haven’t banned reusable diapers yet, now that would be worse than any plastic bag ban… ;)

  • Anonymous

    I’ll post it again as I was late to the party last time. Everyone’s cheering the plastic bag ban because it embarassed Ford, but it’s not at all clear that plastic bags are worse for the environment than paper:
    If they’re roughly equal, wouldn’t plastic be better due to being more re-usable and versatile? Wouldn’t their ease of re-use make them more likely to be re-used?

    And am I wrong or weren’t plastic bags originally considered an environmentally better replacement for paper?

    • Anonymous

      Paper is sustainable; oil-based products are not sustainable.

      • Anonymous

        A surprising amount of disposable paper (e.g., kleenex and toilet paper) comes from old growth trees. Meanwhile, plastics can be vegetable-derived.

      • Anonymous

        Paper, new or recycled, requires way too much water and energy to be considered more sustainable than plastic. Plastic is also more likely to be re-used and will last longer for more re-use.

  • Grzegorz Radziwonowski

    Really, the excuses Cllr Shiner brought forward showed that he’s never done a week’s worth of shopping using the TTC.

    The boxes that all grocery stores must provide (part of the bylaw that introduced the 5c bag fee) are great for holding groceries if you drive. Taking 4 of them on the bus or streetcar, it’s impractical. If anything, carrying them like a grocery bag Christmas tree is easier, simply because you can balance the loads between both sides, rather than in the centre. (Somehow, I doubt that makes sense to others.)

    Yet Cllr Shiner’s reasoning is that “plastic bags break”. Certainly, if you carry groceries in produce bags, they will break. But most grocery bags, especially from no frills, are strong enough to do the job.

    From an environmental point of view, does buying garbage bags do any less damage than the grocery bags? The obvious answer is no, yet this seems to be the exact message being sent. Additionally, Toronto accepts grocery bags in our recycling program, so those bags can be reused, rather than using new hydrocarbons, to make them again.

    So then why do it in the first place? Is it to hurt our local businesses, who get the 5c, less the cost of the bags themselves? Our is it doing it just for the sake of saying they’re doing something down at 100 Queen West?

    • Anonymous

      “Is it to hurt our local businesses, who get the 5c”

      Our local businesses managed to survive for decades before the 5¢ bag fee existed. Some managed to turn a profit just by selling products and even gave away bags for free.