Ask Torontoist: A Plastic Bag Double-Header
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Ask Torontoist: A Plastic Bag Double-Header

Ask Torontoist features questions posed by you and answered by our elite team of specially trained investigative experts (also known as our staff). Send your questions to [email protected].

Reader Jonathan Lazzarotto Says:

What I can’t get my head around is why it’s acceptable for the retailers to keep the bag tax proceeds. Couldn’t this be collected by the city and put directly towards environmental causes? Was this even considered? Let’s try some math with entirely fictional numbers: if there are five thousand bag-giving businesses in Toronto selling two hundred bags per week, that’s $2.6 million that could go directly towards a green cause.

Torontoist Answers:

Actually, you touch on the reason the city can’t collect proceeds from the bag “tax” in your question. Because the “tax” isn’t really a tax, and it would be completely unlawful for the city to levy if it were.
The five-cent bag fee, as it should probably, more properly, be known, was instituted by Toronto’s City Council under the authority granted them by the City of Toronto Act of 2006, a set of sweeping changes to the organization of Toronto’s city government intended to invest City Council with greater autonomy in cases where they had previously needed to appeal to provincial authorities for assistance.
The City of Toronto Act does, in fact, give City Council the ability to levy some kinds of taxes, but when it comes to sales taxes on services and property they’re only allowed to do so on a preselected trinity of awesome: booze, smokes, and movie tickets. Bags are off-limits. Requiring merchants to keep all our nickels is what makes the whole scheme “not a tax” and therefore legal.
Although, the Post did report, in a June 15 article that the plastics industry is considering a legal challenge, and that they may have a case. Hmm…
While the fee remains in effect (as it will, for the foreseeable future), reinvesting your erstwhile pocket change in green causes is completely at the discretion of individual retailers. The city encourages them to do so on the bylaw’s official explanatory page.
For our part, we support melting down all the bag fee nickels to provide raw material for the construction of an enormous metal monument to the greatness of the plastic shopping bag, for installation in a prominent downtown location (we hear TD Centre has an open spot). We hound them into extinction, but nothing wraps a dripping toilet plunger like a sturdy, everlasting polyethylene sack.
Which brings us to today’s second question.

Photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

Reader Ellen Says:

I was buying biodegradable bags for my kitchen compost, but a friend pointed out that during processing, the biodegradable bags are separated from the compost and end up buried in a pile of plastic bags. Is there any point in using biodegradable bags for city-collected composting?

Torontoist Answers:

The short answer is no, for exactly the reason you state. Plastic is separated from the mix by the city prior to composting (video here).
Also, don’t use them because they’re about to be banned citywide. On June 1, 2010, another section of the city’s bag bylaw comes into effect. It forbids retailers from providing customers with plastic bags that are biodegradable or compostable.
What seems at first blush like a cruel blow to the health of the planet is actually a pretty good piece of governance. It’s not that the city wants your bags to go into the waste stream. They’ve simply judged that the best way for individuals to reduce plastic waste for the time being is for them to throw those bags into the city’s blue bins, so they can be handed over to manufacturers, who will turn them into long-lasting plastic products, like plastic lumber and auto parts. A staff report by Solid Waste Management Services from last fall says that biodegradable plastics interfere with the recycling process. They gum up the works and render the final product unusable. That’s why they have to go.
And that’s not the only reason banning biodegradable bags is a wise move. In many cases, biodegradable plastics might actually be more harmful to ecosystems than conventional plastics.
We traded emails with Ramani Narayan, an expert on biodegradable polymers and a professor at Michigan State University. Narayan has been active in several national and international working groups tasked with setting industry standards for what actually constitutes a “biodegradable plastic.”
Narayan told us that some plastics sold as biodegradable are actually so-called “oxo-biodegradable” polymers, meaning that they’re just ordinary plastics that have been adulterated with metal salts to speed disintegration. These plastics break down relatively quickly into particles too tiny to see with the naked eye, but, according to a study conducted by the State of California, these bits aren’t readily digested by micro-organisms, and so they can knock around the environment indefinitely and can even be consumed by wildlife and human beings.
Even those plastic bags that will biodegrade, meaning that at least 90% of their mass can be consumed by microbes and converted into biological waste in a set period of time, need to be disposed of properly. In most cases, a home compost pile won’t get the job done. Biodegradable plastics are usually designed to break down only in well-run municipal composting facilities, where factors like ambient temperature can be controlled at all times.
Tiny shreds of your biodegradable bags might miraculously survive the separation process and wind up in the city’s compost by accident, but the safer bet by far is to recycle and to do so as much as possible.