plastic bag fee toronto

It's time to get purposeful with plastic bag fee revenue

The decision to implement Toronto's five cent bag fee was perhaps the most impressively half-baked initiative of the David Miller reign. It started off well-intentioned, of course.

"Hey guys, you know what sucks? Plastic bags in the garbage. Let's cut down on those!"

And so came the proposal for a new City of Toronto bylaw that would require retailers to charge five cents for each plastic bag requested.

"This is awesome! We're going to divert so much trash! Oh, and I have the BEST idea for what we can do with the fees collected. We should start by — wait, wait... if we do this, I'm going to need to get some new canvas bags. Should I look for indie prints on Dundas or Queen West?"

I've had to fill in the gaps with a little imagination, of course, but that's essentially how the City of Toronto managed to increase big business bottom lines with a couple quick signatures. (OK, perhaps there was a little more debate, but I digress..) The bylaw, passed in 2009, allowed retailers to keep all of the profits from plastic bag sales, while suggesting that a portion be donated to environmental causes.

Some stores have opted to do so, naturally, though few will disclose how much they're making off the bags compared to the amount they're donating to environmental causes. Is there a dissonance there, or is it just me?

Council will discuss the bylaw at a meeting today, where some councillors (and the mayor) will argue to rescind the fee. Others, such as Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, are pushing for a campaign that would encourage big retailers to divert some of the profits to Toronto's tree canopy.

The problem is, as the bylaw stands now the most the City can do is "encourage." The five cent fee is not a tax — that is, Toronto can't rightfully collect the profits. So businesses are free to donate as much or as little as they like. Which, from an environmental perspective (remember that?) makes very little sense.

The efficacy of the plastic bag fee, nevertheless, shouldn't be underemphasized. Indeed, it has been successful in dropping plastic bag use across Toronto more than 50 per cent, according to city staff. But a law that requires the collection of fees should, too, plan for the use of those fees. And ideally, that plan would not be based solely on fleeting spurts of corporate goodwill.

Those who hope to uphold the fee have the cards stacked against them, especially since plastic bags have now been incorporated into Toronto's blue bin program. But if the bylaw manages to hold, Toronto council should see to it that the funds become more than additional corporate revenue. Asking for charity after the fact simply tows the line of an underdeveloped environmental initiative.

Photo by ravenswift in the blogTO Flickr pool


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