Plastic-Bag Ban Killed at Council
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Plastic-Bag Ban Killed at Council

With no ban and no five-cent fee, plastic bags return to being an unregulated part of Toronto life.

Photo by {a href=""}Daryl Schipper{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The long, roller coaster saga of Toronto’s vexed relationship with plastic bags took one last sharp turn today: council has decided to nix its plan to implement a ban, at least for now.

Earlier this year council passed a policy that states that single-use plastic bags should be prohibited. At their meeting today, councillors considered a by-law on the subject: the technical language that would have implemented that policy and turned it into an enforceable, binding rule. A few weeks ago though, two groups (representing the plastic-bag industry and convenience stores) launched legal challenges to that prospective by-law, protesting that it was created in haste and unfairly limited their businesses. And today, council decided not to pass that by-law.

The claim about the hasty process is, according to just about everyone, a fair one. Council did not hold public consultations on a plastic-bag ban before voting on the policy, which came about as a surprise motion earlier this year. It is unclear how much that played into council’s decision today, however: because of the legal challenges, council had to discuss some details in private—councillors spent some of this morning debating in a closed-door session.

What we do know: once back in public session, council voted by a wide margin to scrap the by-law, and endorsed a set of confidential recommendations based on advice from the City’s solicitor. Public Works and Infrastructure chair Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) told reporters that he hopes the substance of those recommendations will be made public “before Christmas.”

Representatives of the plastic industry who were at the council meeting today pronounced themselves pleased with this development.

So, legal details aside for the moment, council has a policy that calls for a ban on plastic bags, but no by-law implementing that policy—the policy has no force or effect. No rules will kick in on January 1, 2013, as originally planned, and since the five-cent bag fee was killed at the same time as the bag ban policy was introduced, we don’t have that either.

Toronto’s Plastic-Bag Saga

June 1, 2009: A five-cent plastic-bag fee [PDF], approved by council under David Miller, takes effect. Though it is referred to by many as a tax, it isn’t—the City doesn’t have the authority to levy it as a tax—and retailers keep the five cents they collect.

May 14, 2012: Councillor Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) tells the Executive Committee that she’d like to consider a proposal asking retailers to donate the proceeds of the plastic bag fee to the City’s efforts to maintain the tree canopy. This reopens the whole issue of the plastic-bag fee in general, which Rob Ford’s administration uses as an opportunity to propose scrapping it entirely.

June 6, 2012: Council agrees to scrap the bag fee, but, in an unexpected blow to Ford, councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale), often an ally, proposes that since council has already acknowledged there are environmental concerns about plastic bags, they just ban the things altogether. Shocking almost everyone, this new policy passes.

November 14, 2012: The Public Works and Infrastructure Committee approves language for a plastic-bag ban by-law, formalizing council’s earlier policy decision. Their approval means the by-law gets sent to the next full meeting of city council for a final sign-off.

November 15, 2012: The Ontario Convenience Stores Association serves a notice of application on the City of Toronto, announcing a legal challenge to the by-law.

November 28, 2012: City council considers the draft by-law that had been approved by Public Works, and decides to scrap it. Due to council’s procedures, which are meant to keep them productive and things flowing smoothly, it will now take a two-thirds majority to reopen the issue of the bag ban anytime within the next year. Council also adopts a motion advanced by councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York), asking for staff to prepare a report on “the benefits and implications of a range of measures to reduce the use and disposal of plastic bags in Toronto.” That report is expected in June 2013.