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

Posted by Robyn Urback / June 6, 2012

plastic bag fee torontoThe 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



ZStraw / June 6, 2012 at 10:18 am
Do what San Francisco did, just ban them altogether.
Hi Mom replying to a comment from ZStraw / June 6, 2012 at 10:23 am
How do people pick up dog shit there?
Yeppers / June 6, 2012 at 10:24 am
Have to agree with ZStraw.... ban those bags.

Meagan / June 6, 2012 at 10:35 am
HiMom: I don't know? How did people pick up dog shit before plastic bags became commonplace in the late 70s?

ZStraw. Also, I agree. If we want to really fix the bag problem, we can't ban them outright. If you charge 5 cents for a bag, it's only a disincentive to the portion of the population for whom 5c is a big deal. For the middle-class and up, it's only a minor inconvenience.
Soosy / June 6, 2012 at 10:37 am
If people are so angry about where the money is going, here's a thought... bring a re-usable bag instead.
Eric / June 6, 2012 at 10:41 am
Why not forward that cash to an environmental cause like the ttc. Just make sure it's going to a new subway line.
anon / June 6, 2012 at 10:43 am
Might be a good idea for big stores, but please stop putting more bureaucracy in front of small business. Reducing usage by 50% is a resounding victory. Let them keep the 0.5% extra profit if they chose to.
Joseph / June 6, 2012 at 11:11 am
Is it legal for the government to set prices for businesses?h
Mat / June 6, 2012 at 11:28 am
Exact same laziness that led to Canada dropping Kyoto. "Sure it's making at least a bit of difference, but if it's not going to be perfect, we might as well give up."

Why is the conversation removing the fee (which is hardly even a fee... it's a nothing gesture that makes you think twice) rather than finding ways to ensure the money is used efficiently? I can't imagine ANY store, even something like a Loblaws or a Metro, is making more than a negligible bump in their profits. It's not like they're all making record profits on our occasional nickels.
Al replying to a comment from Meagan / June 6, 2012 at 11:28 am
They didn't pick it up. The pooper scooper laws only came in during the 1980s.
Security Window Film / June 6, 2012 at 11:39 am
This bylaw should be changed to force businesses to donate the profits from the plastic bag fee towards Toronto's tree canopy
old bag / June 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm
I'd bring my own bag *and* pay five cents if a store clerk actually *bagged* my purchased merchandise for me.
Mr Kanyo replying to a comment from Hi Mom / June 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm
Most dog poo bags are biodegradable, even those sold at the dollar store. You can throw them in the green bin.
Alan / June 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm
The system as-is is nearly perfect - it gets the desired results without any ongoing costs.

Making it a real tax all of a sudden creates new costs, both on business and the city. All that effort is wasted - it doesn't produce real goods, doesn't create innovation, it's just red tape. It transfers money from business to accountants and city-workers. Why is that better?
Ratpick replying to a comment from Alan / June 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm
Hit it squarely on the head, Alan. Well said.

Turning this into a tax that funds unrelated initiatives would be an unproductive disaster.

But keep the fee. As silly as it is, it has made people THINK about plastic.
Leo / June 6, 2012 at 01:04 pm
When Miller passed this half-baked by-law, it stated that retailers have to offer an free alternative like paper bags over the $0.05 plastic bags and SUGGESTED that retailers give the proceeds to environmental charities. Here we are 2 years later and I have not once been offered a paper bag alternative at Loblaws, Metro or Sobeys and yet there they are, still charging the $0.05 for plastic bags. And to date...I have no idea whether the proceeds of this collection is in fact going to any good where's the accountability? Any supermarket that does have a free paper bag alternative has a customer in me. Let's bring those businesses to the forefront.
Bill / June 6, 2012 at 01:07 pm
I wanted to switch to cloth bags for a long time but kept forgetting or "giving in" to plastic but as soon as the 5 cent fee came along, I managed to switch for good. Sad that it took a nickel to change my behaviour but whatever works. Keep the fee, encourage retailers to support the tree canopy, follow through on some of the suggestions where a retailer can brand themselves as "tree canopy friendly" if they contributor, and most important, keep it simple.

I can't believe City Hall doesn't have bigger fish to fry than killing initiatives that actually work and save the city money.
Jay / June 6, 2012 at 01:13 pm
Either the City gets the money collected to put towards environmental programs or ban plastic bags altogether.

Leaving the collected money in the hands of corporations and hoping they will do te right thing will hq e little benefit to the City.
Alex / June 6, 2012 at 01:24 pm
It's fine as it is. It's greatly reduced the number of plastic bags used. Don't bother with all the work required in actually forcing the companies to donate the money to trees, it'll cost more than it brings in. Why not just create some big wall or something at city hall or in another public place that lists the percentage of bag revenues and the total that each company donates to the tree canopy or other environmental causes. Make a big show out of it so any company that does nothing or very little will be embarrassed in a very public way.
honey / June 6, 2012 at 03:13 pm
I work at Loblaws (I'm a cashier), and the 5 cent bag charge is donated to the World Wildlife Fund. This is throughout all Loblaws with the green bags. Not sure whether it's the same for No Frills, though they've always charged for bags there, and the stores are franchises.
Personally, I feel that if the city REALLY wanted to get rid of plastic bags, then they should charge $1/each.

The customers that complain the most about the bag charge? Well to do, retired old men. I've been bitched at so much about it, it's ridiculous. I'm a cashier, if they want the bag charge gone, then they should hassle Tubby Bear, aka Rob Ford, not me!
Interestingly, in reading this, it was a 3 year program, which will have now ended. No idea if money is still being sent the way of the WWF though.
Josh / June 6, 2012 at 03:16 pm
This is one of the bigger non-issues I think this city has ever had.

Also, not every retailer is a big boogieman corporation. Smaller businesses don't have the pleasure of buying in the extreme level of bulk required to get bags for under 5 cents.

But besides that - it's a simple city initiative that WORKS. How often can we really say that? If paying 5 cents a bag bothers you, bring your own, or ask your boss for a big ol' raise. If it bothers you on a matter of principle, try Xanax.
Results? / June 6, 2012 at 03:39 pm
No matter what anyone can say, halving the use of plastic bags is significant. Why then would we want to remove that fee and relapse back to our 'old ways'?

On profits to businesses: If people aren't buying bags, stores aren't making money.

On bags' inclusion in the blue bin program: Recycling is the last of the 'three Rs'. Not using bags saves the energy and waste to produce them as well as the energy and cost to they city to recycle them.

On the 'low cost' and upper-middle class: It's the psychology of it, not the actual cost. An additional five or ten cents per trip to the store is not something most people would consider a blow to their finances. It's the idea of paying for something that you can get for free which impacts people.

In summary, the fee works. Why get rid of something that's good for the environment and generates revenue for businesses?
M.Y. replying to a comment from old bag / June 6, 2012 at 04:03 pm
I agree! The 'non bagging' is the biggest issue I have with the introduction of the bylaw. Sometimes you get a very friendly cashier who offers to bag your items in the fabric bag you bring...but it's not common practice. I just hate bagging stuff in a rush. It's like I'm doing a juggling act trying to pay my bill, put away my wallet and bag my stuff while the next person in line is being shoved over to where you're still standing.
Mark / June 6, 2012 at 04:17 pm
So glad you all don't mind the government forcing businesses to charge customers for something they used to give for free. You people are sheep and will do anything if someone tells you it is for the 'environment'.
Alex replying to a comment from Mark / June 6, 2012 at 05:00 pm
Haha, that's similar to the argument "Why bother reducing waste when we have so much land to dump garbage in?" Because it's common sense, duh. Less plastic bags = less garbage, which is generally a good thing (saves the city money, which I am sure is something you care quite a bit about).

Why can't people just bag their own stuff? I used to be a cashier and I got so sick of lazy people bringing their own bags and then not bagging their groceries. Especially the idiots that didn't want any plastic bags, but only brought one or two re-usables, and then complained the bag was too heavy. The line moves a lot faster if you just bag it yourself.
Ratpick replying to a comment from Mark / June 6, 2012 at 05:19 pm
Valid viewpoint.

I shake my head at the unquestioning approval that people give to "green" initiatives, whether they work or not. Prius? Its batteries are toxic resource hogs. CFL bulbs? Inefficient in practice, possibly poisonous.

But this one is different. Making people think about the cheap plastic they use and throw away is worthwhile. You would not believe how many plastic bags are floating around in the middle of the lake -- I see them all summer long when I'm out there. Out they go, to the sea.

Personally, I'd rather see the old No Frills model, where everybody just charges for bags without being told to by some nagging nanny. Let's not encourage our governments to create more useless eco-fees that can't even pay for their own administration.

Marie / June 6, 2012 at 06:19 pm
Well apparently the council voted to ban ALL plastic bags by 2013. I don't know how I feel about this...
Ratpick replying to a comment from Marie / June 6, 2012 at 07:11 pm
It means Rob Ford will probably get re-elected.
Mark's admirer replying to a comment from Mark / June 6, 2012 at 07:21 pm
Mark you're hilarious! Do you take time to think about everything you write on here, or are you able to wing it on the spot? You're so consistent, and I can always count on you for a laugh. Nobody is this silly in real life, and you make it look so easy!
john replying to a comment from Marie / June 6, 2012 at 08:18 pm
That really sucks... I get those bags when i'm on my way home from somewhere and need to pick up groceries. I don't always leave my house with reusable bags. I also use the bags i get for throwing out garbage.
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