Hume: Toronto takes step back by reversing plastic bag ban - Toronto Star

November 30, 2012
Christopher Hume, Urban Issues, Toronto Star

With Rob Ford on his way to becoming history, one might have expected a newly emboldened city council would rise to the occasion.

But any hope our civic exemplars would rush to fill the vacuum was shattered Wednesday when councillors caved ignominiously to crass corporate pressure, in this case from the plastic bag industry.

After taking a welcome step towards enlightenment earlier this year and banning plastic bags from the city, council undid all that this week. The reason, it says, is that manufacturers, egged on by that personification of befuddlement, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, have launched a lawsuit against the city.

Oh dear.

How ironic that council’s decision should come at a time of widespread hand-wringing about the state of democracy in Toronto. As council just made clear, in this city the will of the people takes a back seat to the bottom line.

Meanwhile, that same council found the gumption to reassert its wish to send the Toronto Zoo’s three elephants to a California animal shelter. Such courage! And for the second time.

It also recommended that the Edmonton Zoo send its elephant to the same pachyderm halfway house.

No one would disagree that our treatment of these poor creatures is cruel and horribly depressing; but is the state of the environment any less worrisome than the fate of these animals?

The fact that an ocean of plastic bags ends up as landfill every year should be enough for the city to take action. Cities, indeed, countries around the world have banned plastic bags; Toronto’s decision to do the same was part of a larger global effort to reduce the damage.

Willowdale Councillor David Shiner, who, surprisingly, first proposed the ban, says it will be reintroduced next June once the city has undertaken the requisite consultation. This is nonsense. There’s nothing we need to know that we don’t already know.

In truth, council’s self-reversal was an act of political cowardice, pure and simple. The fear of leading got the better of our councillors and they ran, frightened, from themselves.

Given the make-up of council, that comes as no surprise. Between the aging careerists who cling to power helping local NIMBYs fight homes for unwed-mothers and ambitious newcomers who have never seen a fence on which they couldn’t comfortably sit, this is a timid and singularly unimpressive crew that rarely fails to put its own fears above the interests of the city.

“Right now we don’t have any policy on plastic bags,” says Emily Alfred of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, “no fee, no ban. It’s a huge step backwards. A lot of places have banned single-use plastic bags. That’s the direction most countries are going. But Toronto council’s decision to reverse itself was based on confidential information, so we don’t know what council was told. But there’s a certain amount of chickening out. It’s sad when a policy protecting the environment is trumped by an industry with lots of money to pursue its own self-interest.”

According to the city’s own report, the 5-cent fee cut plastic bag usage by 53 percent. In 2007, Torontonians were using 457 million annually, down now to 215 million.

No surprise a recent study found plastic pollution in the Great Lakes is as much as twice that of the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

With this move, council has done for the environment what it did for bike riding on Jarvis. Little wonder that the vote was widely viewed as a victory for Ford. His last, we hope.


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