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Plastic Bag Ban on Its Way Back to Council

After an odd debate, councillors approve the bylaw that took everyone by surprise.

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No persons carrying on retail business in a retail business establishment…shall provide customers with single-use plastic carryout (shopping) bags, including those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photodegradable or similar.

That, above, is the language that city council will consider at the end of this month when it is asked to take its final vote on the surprise decision to ban plastic bags [PDF]. That decision came about (to the amusement of some and consternation of others) while Mayor Rob Ford was trying to make plastic bags easier to get, not harder, by eliminating the five-cent plastic bag fee that had been introduced under David Miller in 2009. Council did indeed agree to get rid of that fee—but at the same meeting decided to ban the bags altogether.

That decision having been made on the spur of the moment, however, some procedural steps had been skipped over—among them, public consultation. Residents of Toronto had last expressed their views on plastic bags, their merits, and their downsides, four years ago, before the fee was introduced, but hadn’t yet weighed in on this new proposal. Today was their chance.

It did not go particularly smoothly.

“You are not our fascist overlords,” said Jessica Lauren Annis, one of the 19 people who registered to speak on the issue at today’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Meeting. (A few more were added as the meeting progressed.) And that captured the tone of several deputants, who were frustrated at what they perceived to be an intrusive measure. Several more were from the plastics or retail industries; all of them had concerns, ranging from the financial burdens of producing reusable bags, to job losses at plastic bag manufacturers, to costs for large businesses that already had several months’ worth of single-use plastic bags in their warehouses. The Toronto Environmental Alliance, by contrast, spoke in favour of the ban, and also suggested council consider limiting other kinds of single-use bags (ones made of paper) in future.

Few of these points for or against actually mattered for the purpose of the debate though: since city council had already debated the policy and decided to go ahead with it, the only subject officially up for discussion today was how to go about implementing the bag ban. This meant that many of the residents who came to speak had their remarks ruled out of order by meeting chair Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East). Individuals and industry representatives alike did not take kindly to this. (Gary Sands, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers: “With all due respect…this isn’t consultation. You’ve built the car, and you’re asking me to comment on the upholstery. I’m not going to do that.”)

In the end, the committee decided to approve the bylaw by a vote of 4-2; it will now to go city council for a final vote. In ordinary circumstances, that would be a formality since councillors already endorsed the policy position captured in the bylaw (it’s really a technical vote, this one, concerned the specific wording of the bylaw). These aren’t quite ordinary circumstances though, so nobody is ruling out another curveball just yet.

The oddness of it all was nicely summarized by Minnan-Wong, who said before he voted: “I am supporting the recommendations. I do not support the bag ban. It was done in haste. It was done without consultation.” Nonetheless, he went on, he was voting in favour of the ban because council had already determined this was a policy it would pursue, and he wanted to avoid the massive dysfunction of reopening debates that had already been settled. But then there was this caveat, as he added: “We’re leaving it to the private sector to save us from our own madness…by hopefully taking this to court and having it overturned.”


What constitutes a “single-use plastic carryout bag”?

SINGLE-USE PLASTIC CARRYOUT (SHOPPING) BAGS — A disposable bag made predominantly of plastic film which, regardless of a customer’s decision to reuse, is designed to carry customer purchases from a retail business establishment on one occasion only, but that does not include:

  • A. Bags used by customers inside retail business establishments to package bulk items such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy or small hardware items such as nails and bolts;
  • B. Bags used to contain or wrap frozen foods, meat or fish, flowers or potted plants, whether pre-packaged or not;
  • C. Bags used to protect prepared foods or bakery goods;
  • D. Bags that pharmacists are otherwise required to provide exclusively to contain the prescription drugs or other medications that they dispense, refill or transfer;
  • E. Newspaper bags;
  • F. Door-hanger bags;
  • G. Laundry-dry cleaning bags; or
  • H. Bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended for such uses as garbage, pet waste, yard waste, household organics or recycling.
  • I. Packaging that the manufacturer and/or distributor and/or shipper of the good used for the good prior to its arrival at the retail business establishment.

When would the ban take effect?
Formally, if it passes, the bag ban will take effect on January 1, 2013. Recognizing that this doesn’t give retailers a great deal of time to prepare, however, staff will be using a staged implementation plan. For the first six months, they will work on educating retailers about the ban; this period will also allow retailers to use up any stockpile of plastic bags they already have, so the money they have already spent on those bags isn’t wasted. Bylaw officers would be able to issue fines (the amounts haven’t been finalized yet) as of July 1.

How will the ban be enforced?
As with many municipal regulations, bylaw officers will be able to issue warnings or fines—but as with most bylaws, how much they do so will depend on how much of a priority they put on monitoring for this kind of infraction. As far as we know, no fines have been issued for retailers who don’t charge the five-cent bag fee, so until now this hasn’t been an enforcement priority.

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