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Public Works: Banning the Bag

As Toronto considers reopening the debate on banning plastic bags, what's the rest of the world doing with theirs?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, governance, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}PLTam{/a} from the Torontoist Flickr pool.{/em}

The “now we use ‘em, now we don’t” saga of single-use plastic bags in Toronto took another strange turn this week.

The story so far: the City mandated a five-cent fee on the bags back in 2009 during David Miller’s mayoralty. When Rob Ford became mayor, he vowed to repeal the fee, and was successful in convincing council to do so in June of this year. Except, moments later, they voted to ban the bag altogether starting in 2013.

On Tuesday, Councillor Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) put forward a motion to reopen debate on the June decision. The motion will be considered at next Tuesday’s meeting. If it’s successful, the bag ban could could be reversed or delayed.

The ban caught many off guard, including some of those who voted in favour, so it’s not surprising that someone wants to take a second look at it. Pressure from the plastics and convenience store industries—both of which stand to lose from the measure—is also reported to be influencing the behind-the-scenes debate.

The arguments against single-use plastic bags are well-known: they last for hundreds of years in landfills, wildlife choke on them, they’re made of non-renewable fossil fuels, and they flutter melancholically in the wind, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of human life and the inevitability of death.

Toronto is only the latest in a long list of places legislating against plastic.

Canada can boast the first North American municipality to get rid of the bag: Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, back in 2007. What effect this had is uncertain. Leaf Rapids’ population was only around 500 people and declining at the time, so the experiment was limited in scope. (In 2007 a former mayor observed that the town had descended into a “drunken free-for-all,” although no causal relationship to the bag ban was suggested.)

On a larger scale, also in 2007, San Francisco enacted an ordinance prohibiting single-use plastic bags in large supermarkets and drugstores. The initiative has been successful enough that it will be extended to all retail shops this October 1, and to food establishments on October 1, 2013. Following San Francisco’s lead, Los Angeles also voted this May to prohibit plastic bags beginning in 2013.

In 2008, China outlawed free plastic bags in most stores, and claims to have reduced their use by 24 billion bags over four years, in spite of spotty enforcement.

Other examples include Bangladesh, where laws were enacted in 2002 following deadly floods in 1988 and 1998 that were attributed, in part, to bags clogging up storm sewers.

Legislation against single-use bags continues to spread, in spite of the best efforts of of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, who are leading the battle against “environmental fear mongers.” This plastics industry group makes a number of arguments in favour of the bag: that jobs are at risk, that plastic is more environmentally friendly than paper, that shoppers will take their business to more plastic-friendly areas, that reusable bags are unhealthy bacteria sinks, and that all that’s needed to reduce seagull asphyxiation is more education on recycling (for people, not seagulls).

Most of these claims are questionable; there’s no evidence of massive unemployment or consumer revolt following fees or bans.

On balance, we can say that reducing single-use plastic bags on our streets and in our landfills is a worthy goal. But do we need a ban in Toronto?

The five-cent fee imposed in 2009 was effective. It is estimated to have cut in half the volume of plastic bags dumped in landfills. However, since city council has voted get rid of the fee (although some retailers have opted to retain it), there’s no longer any incentive beyond green guilt for Torontonians to turn bags down.

Mayor Ford contends that the bag fee has done its job, and that consumer behaviour has changed, so no restriction is necessary. This is nonsense, of course, since humans love to backslide. We might as well argue that we don’t need highway speed limits since everyone’s now adapted to them.

And evidence shows that voluntary bag restrictions just don’t work.

If we’re serious about reducing plastic waste, we have a choice: we can either bring back the nickel-a-bag law, or we implement some kind of ban.

We all know that Ford Nation and fellow travellers hate the “bag tax.” Because five cents is a lot of money, right? And with luck we’ll be able to kick environmental catastrophe down the road to the next generation. Reinstating it would be a tough sell, since council has already voted to repeal it.

The ban, however has already been approved, and even if it causes a little inconvenience in the short term, it’s the right thing to do. Let’s keep this case closed.


  • Anonymous

    Just bring back to 5 cent fee enforcement. Most of the grocery stores I go to, still kept the fee after it became “free” again.

  • Ian

    Encouraging consumers to substitute one type of packaging (paper) instead of plastic is not a progressive solution. Paper comes with its own environmental drawbacks. The purpose should be to reduce unnecessary bag use, paper or plastic. The 5 cent fee did the trick and should come back.

    • Paul Kishimoto

      It sounds like you’ve seen some measurements of what people have been doing instead of using plastic bags. Please share with the rest of us!

    • Anonymous

      On the other hand, paper bags are easily recyclable and don’t usually end up in landfills in other ways, like dog poop holders or trashcan liners. How about ban plastic, 5 cents for paper?

      • Anonymous

        Actually it takes alot more energy to recycle paper bags than plastic ones.

        Anyway, who doesn’t re-use plastic bags?? I can see paper being a one-time use thing, but plastic?

        • stopitman

          More energy, but at least they are recycled, whereas using a plastic bag once before it sits in a landfill shouldn’t be seen as reuse.

          On the matter of people complaining about 5c/bag, why should a company give out bags for free?

          • Anonymous

            Paper is recycled more because it’s only used once! Plastic is recycled less because it’s re-used more. You can recycle plastic bags!

            Why should a retailer give out a free bag? To get customers? To advertise? Why should you post inanities on a website? Maybe I should get the government to ban you!

        • Michael DiFrancesco

          …Paper bags are compostable. If you’re telling me it’s significantly more work to throw a paper bag in with your green bin than to reprocess plastic bags, well, you’re gonna need to follow that up with a link.

          • Anonymous


            By the way, paper doesn’t decompose much better than plastic in landfill anyway.

            People are still going to use plastic bags for garbage; they’ll just have to buy actual one-time use bags for $0.20 a piece. I’m sure the poor will appreciate your thoughtful environmental activism.

          • Michael DiFrancesco

            I said green bins, not recycling or landfills. The mere fact that you can compost paper bags in a green bin puts them ahead of trying to recycle plastic.

          • Anonymous

            Perhaps for those with green bins. But keep in mind that making paper bags consumes more energy, more water and creates more pollution. And they will typically be one-time use.

  • Transity Cyclist

    People want plastic bags! Plastic bags last longer! Ford was elected to build plastic bags folks!

    • Anonymous

      “Plastic bags are great for filling potholes, and putting over the heads of paid assistants attending football practice. I like how they blow around everywhere, you can just pick them off the trees. They’re the best thing in the subways. Whenever I need one, I have one of my assistants pick it up for me. We should build more subways, so everyone can have bags. I’ve called a meeting with top city staff about all the leaves on my lawn. They have until the weekend to fix it.”

  • Anonymous

    I don’t understand why people feel they have a right to free plastic bags, why they feel stores are obligated to give them away.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t understand why some anonymous coward down-voted that.

      Speak up; tell us why you are entitled to free plastic bags.

    • Anonymous

      I think some people feel there was a mutually beneficial relationship between the customer and the retailer; you give me a free bag, I’ll carry around your logo in public. Then a bunch of busybodies jumped in, trying to get the government involved to screw that all up for no good reason other than to feel self-important. Now those same ignoramuses are accusing bag users of being entitled because they’re too unimaginitive to come up with anything else that fits their narrative.

      I’m guessing that’s why you got a -1. But it wasn’t from me.

      • Anonymous

        That makes no sense.

  • Anonymous

    I figure we should just bring back the 5¢ charge or go whole ban; ban all plastic and paper bags, making everyone bring their own. Banning plastic while allowing paper bags given out for free is probably a pyrrhic victory for the environment at best, counter-productive at worst.

  • Chuck Burke

    For Ontarian’s the plastic bag issue is just the very tip of the iceberg. Bad decisions that have cost millions of dollars by Stewardship Ontario and Waste Diversion Ontario, could have solved the bag issue a dozen times over. Do you realize for example that Toronto pays $400.00 per metric ton to get rid of foam packaging while Kingston and Waterloo get paid. Stewardship Ontario has paid over 2 million dollars to a Kingston company to recycle the same material and they haven’t recycled anything in two years . Bags– thats just the start. Ontario recycling is a good old boys network and runs on the golden rule- The ones with the taxpayers money makes the rules

  • Anonymous

    An artist in Paris made slugs sculptures with a few thousand plastic bags.


    The main advantage of brown paper bags is that it is biodegradable means do not pollute the air and land.

    • John Ochwat

      There is no advantage either way. Paper production creates a lot of pollution and requires a lot of energy (cutting trees, shipping timber, paper processing, paper shipping), but plastic lasts thousands of years and is an absolute scourge. Both *can* be recycled, but current recycling rates for plastic bags are pitiful — around 1%, I once read.

      What this article points out is that the best way to improve people’s behaviour is to do it structurally: either with a ban (best), or a per-bag tax.

      I’m not terribly persuaded by the “poor” argument, either (a former tactic of the plastic industry). A one-time charge of $1 for five bags isn’t that much, especially since a smart supermarket discount items that much for promos, and could give away bags as well.