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Banned but on a shelf near you - Globe and Mail

October 06, 2007, (updated Saturday, Mar. 14 2009)
Massimo Commanducci
Saturday's Globe and Mail

It kills "virtually any plant that is green and growing," says the label on a bottle of Total WipeOut, a thorough-sounding herbicide found on shelves at Canadian Tire and the gardening sections of other stores. With products like this, and other brands like Roundup, Lawn WeedOut and Killex, there's no reason for a Toronto homeowner to suffer the indignity of crabgrass or dandelions - except that the use of such products is banned in the city.

As of Sept. 1, the city's bylaw banning herbicides and insecticides is in full effect, which means residents can be fined $255 to $5,000 for applying such chemicals to their lawns or gardens. (The city phased the bylaw in gradually, giving lawn-care companies more than a year to switch to more eco-friendly products and granting homeowners another two years to adjust to the idea.) Peter Gauthier, the city's manager of healthy environments, says no one has been fined yet, but his office has received six complaints about violations.

So why are pesticides still for sale?

"There are lawn-care products that are sold in stores, but they're regulated federally," Mr. Gauthier says. "We can't restrict the sale of this kind of material," he explains - just the use of it.

Canadian Tire spokeswoman Lisa Gibson defends the sale of the products by pointing out that the bylaw contains exemptions. "It does permit their use if a property has a serious infestation," she says.

But Mr. Gauthier says that exemption generally applies to insect infestations such as grubs and chinch bugs. So it doesn't explain the two-litre jugs of herbicides, or small spray bottles that are obviously intended for the occasional dandelion. (Most herbicides feature a picture of the familiar flower.) "Weeds are not considered an infestation," he says.

Katrina Miller, campaigns director for the Toronto Environmental Alliance, says there's room for improvement. Homeowners "don't actually have to notify anyone when they use pesticides," she says. "So you can spray 2,4-D or Killex on your lawn and you don't have to put up a sign or indicate to anyone that pesticides have been sprayed there."

Similarly, other products on Toronto store shelves are out of sync with city bylaws.

Clear plastic leaf bags, banned since March, 2001, can still be found - usually beside the biodegradable kraft paper bags that residents are supposed to use. Some stores even sell metal frames to hold the plastic bags open. One can't help but wonder who's buying them and what they're using them for, as yard waste left at the curb in such bags simply won't be picked up. Ms. Gibson of Canadian Tire said this week that she didn't even know her company carried the products.

Also on the menu at local retailers are soft-sided recycling containers in three colors. Convenient - or they would be if residents were still required to sort recyclables. (Though judging from the number of residents who still sort religiously, the city has done a poor job of communicating that fact.)

Remote car starters, sold at Canadian Tire, Best Buy and other retailers, allow drivers to warm or cool their cars from the comfort of their homes. ProStart, a brand sold at Canadian Tire, depicts a snow-covered car that has ostensibly been started from a distance and left to run.

That's a no-no, says Angie Antoniou, manager of the city's traffic planning and right-of-way office. Leaving an empty car to idle for more than three minutes would violate the city's anti-idling bylaw and could earn a $125 fine, she said. So far this year, the city has issued 853 warnings and 33 fines.

Drivers are allowed to leave the engine running if the temperature is above 27 C or below 5 C, to cool or heat the interior. "It's basically for the comfort of the individuals in the car," Ms. Antoniou says.

Ms. Miller of the Toronto Environmental Alliance calls that a serious flaw. "There's a certain sad irony to the fact that you're allowed to idle your car longer when it is a smog day outside," she said.

And despite Ms. Antoniou's reading, the wording of the bylaw on the City of Toronto website does not specify that someone must be in the car. So maybe using remote car starters is permissible in certain climatic conditions. Maybe.

Between the exemptions and the complexity of such bylaws, it's not surprising that there's such a disconnect between the products and the legislation.

Perhaps that's why this city sees less-than-perfect air hovering above perfectly weed-free lawns.

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