Thoughts on the Bag Ban

On Wednesday, Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford stepped into City Hall, and asked councillors to scrap the five-cent fee for plastic shopping bags.

City council saw that request … and raised it, by voting to ban shopping bags completely.

This not only caught the mayor off-guard, but the entire city.

Following the vote, Mayor Ford then proceeded to (a) give THIS gem of a reason as to why council got away with their surprise motion, and (b) voice his intention to quash the shopping bag ban.

But amid the mayor’s fist-clenching and councillors David Shiner and Anthony Perruzza ripping a plastic bag in victory (which I found a bit cringe-inducing … and would “ironic” be the right word?), the decision actually got me thinking.

Personally, I’m a bit torn (so to speak).

In theory, the ban is a good idea.

For example:

If I understand correctly, manufacturing plastic bags uses a process requiring a material derived from petroleum and natural gas. So – at least in this city, anyway – hypothetically speaking, that would be reduced.

As well, fewer bags would be littering streets and sidewalks, stuck in trees, floating in rivers (and Lake Ontario), or sent to landfills, to name a few places.

Plus, bags are one less danger animals have to worry about.

These goals are things I absolutely respect.

But here’s where I stop from fully embracing this idea.

It’s not about the inconvenience, when you forget your re-useable bag on the day you need to do a quick grocery run, or carry meat, or something frozen/thawing or sticky.

Or not having a shopping bag when you need to scoop your pet dog’s poop on the daily walk.

To me, it’s the long-term plan when it comes to waste diversion.

If you live in a house, chances are you’ve got a blue box, a black box and a compost bin. Perhaps you might be even more green-minded, and actually do your own composting for use in your garden.

But unless you’re in a living situation (either as a homeowner/landlord or renter, or maybe as a member of a forward-thinking co-op), where the dwelling in which you live has an agreement amongst all its residents to recycle and compost, the ban on plastic bags poses a bit of a problem.

Before last fall, I lived with my parents. Our neighbourhood – like many, many residential areas – is part of Toronto’s compost and recycling program. We put kitchen scraps in our little bin, and recycled the various items that were accepted under the city’s program.

Fast forward eight months.

I live in a low-rise apartment building – owned by a management company – with a few hundred other people. We have the most basic of recycling programs: three blue bins and three black bins. There is no compost bin. We still have garbage chutes. So people – myself included – put our garbage in shopping bags (if we have them) and chuck it down the chute.

Recently, there was a small cockroach infestation in my building. In an effort to discourage the one-roach-a-week visits to my apartment, I would take my food scraps and dispose of them in the small clear produce bags I’d bring home from the supermarket – down the chute – separate from the rest of the garbage. So I’m using twice as many types of plastic bags to dispose of my garbage.

To boot, when I take my recycling out to the bins and open the lids, it’s evident people use plastic bags to carry their newspapers, cans, bottles, plastic, and cartons to the bins and toss them in.

If Toronto had a comprehensive waste diversion program for apartment buildings like mine, perhaps the bag ban wouldn’t give me pause. But it does.

People still use garbage chutes to dispose of waste. And perhaps even IF there was a waste diversion program in place for Toronto, garbage bags might still be needed for that small percentage of waste that couldn’t be recycled or composted.

Sure, it may be well-intentioned to ban shopping bags. But what about all the OTHER plastic bags?

As I mentioned earlier, I use small plastic bags at the supermarket to bag my produce, then use them long after I’ve removed my fruit and veggies, to dispose of my food scraps. Those aren’t banned.

What about the plastic used to package produce and merchandise?

Or the plastic liners drycleaning businesses use, to protect those articles of clothing you’ve had cleaned?

And sure, if Mayor Ford is unsuccessful in overturning the ban, Toronto would join a number of towns, cities and countries, that have implemented bans on plastic bans.

But how do they stack up against the number of countries that DON’T ban plastic bags? (Or, like the city of Ottawa, don’t WANT to?)

And if you’re close enough to another municipality that still allows plastic bans – say, Markham, for example – what won’t stop my septuagenarian mother, from driving a few minutes north in 2013, and hoarding stocking up on shopping bags for garbage bins?

Perhaps I’m exaggerating. But perhaps there should have been a plan behind the ban.

(P.S.: Councillor Shiner, I wish you didn’t rip that plastic bag. I totally could’ve used that.)

Photos, courtesy Nathan Dennette/Canadian Press, David Rider/Toronto Star and BlogTO.