Public Works: Banning the Bag
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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.