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How much should plastic bags cost?

Will a five-cent bag fee be enough to alter our behaviour? And is that even the right question?

December 07, 2008


When Irish officials resolved to charge a fee for plastic grocery bags, they didn't use detailed economic calculations to determine the optimal number. They went for simple shock value – what amount would make shoppers think twice before taking a disposable plastic bag to carry home, say, a loaf of bread already wrapped in plastic?

They settled on 21 cents in 2002. It worked. Plastic-bag use plummeted by more than 90 per cent, and the amount of litter fell substantially. The fees collected by retailers went toward an environment fund that has reaped about $177 million for recycling and green education programs.

But by last year, officials noticed that consumers were reverting to "old, bad habits," environment-department spokesman Vincent Potter said. So in 2007, they increased the fee per bag to 34 cents. Again there was an immediate decline in plastic-bag use and litter

Meanwhile, after months of wrangling with grocery retailers and the plastics industry, Toronto council last week set a modest five-cent fee for grocery-store plastic bags.

Is a nickel enough to drop the plastic habit?

Not likely, says the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "We don't think it's going to change a lot of behaviour," says Katrina Miller, the alliance's campaigns director. "People get used to the fee and will continue to pay it."

If the five-cent fee were the first step in a wider public education program leading to an eventual ban, there would be merit in the by-law council passed on Wednesday, Miller says. "But this is where the program ends, not where it starts."

No question, it's a compromise, says councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, who argued for a 10 cent rebate to shoppers who brought their own bags.

"I was prepared to duke it out in city council and have the fur fly," he says. "We might have won the fight at council, but (we) would have had the entire industry opposed.

"We think we've done everything we can. We've maxed out."

The city agreed to the five-cent fee because it is already an industry standard, at least in Ontario.

"(It's) known to retailers and they are comfortable with (it) and will hopefully cause less concern and panic," De Baeremaeker, chair of the city's public works and infrastructure committee, wrote in a follow-up email.

Loblaw Companies Limited says its own research shows that a nickel a bag – the fee that No Frills stores in Ontario started charging in 1987 – does change consumer behaviour and has led to a 55 per cent reduction in bag use. Offering a rebate to shoppers who bring their own bags is less effective, says the company – only a 4 per cent reduction.

By promoting a fee for bags, the city and its citizens are going down the wrong road, spokespersons for the plastics industry predicted direly last week. In a province already rocked by job losses, as many as 10,000 Ontario jobs in the plastic-bag and film-manufacturing industry may be in jeopardy because of council's decision, according to the Environment and Plastics Industry Council.

Still, some municipalities in North America have chosen a more dramatic approach: an outright ban.

San Francisco's ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags from supermarket and large drug stores has been in place for a year. The city had planned to charge a 17-cent fee, but instead reached a voluntary agreement with grocery stores to reduce plastic-bag distribution by 10 million out of the more than 150 million used in 2006. The stores, however, failed to provide verifiable evidence that bag use was declining. The city used a back-of-the-envelope calculation to arrive at a 17-cent fee, including costs to the city in clean up, contamination to compost the city collected.

Later, a bill was passed in the California legislature that banned municipalities from charging a fee for plastic bags. "Clearly it was targeting us," says Mark Westlund, spokesman for the San Francisco environment department. "We had no option. The stores were not achieving reduction. Now, as far as we can tell, the ban has gone remarkably well."

Small plastic litter of all kinds dropped by 50 per cent in the last year. Down time has also fallen in San Francisco's recycling plant, and millions in savings have been realized since fewer plastic bags are getting caught in the gears of the sorting machinery, forcing a shutdown and manual retrieval.

Seattle's efforts to reduce grocery-store bags – plastic and paper – by charging a 20-cent fee have come up against an effective lobby group funded by the American Chemistry Council and 7-Eleven, Inc.

The fee was approved in July, but after The Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax got 20,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the ordinance, the matter will be decided in a referendum next year.

"At a time when economic uncertainty and the high price of food and fuel are burdening us all, we don't need a tax on grocery bags," a coalition statement read. The distinction of being the first community in North America to ban retailers from giving away single-use plastic bags belongs to a tiny town in northern Manitoba. In 2005, the chief administrative officer for Leaf Rapids noticed that the municipality – approximate population 600 – was spending $5,000 a year to clean up plastic bags in town and in the trees of the nearby forests.

The town introduced a three-cent levy in 2006, "But it was too easy," says mayor Ed Charrier. "Nobody thinks about three cents or five cents." On March 22, 2007, council took the bolder step of a ban.

They were so keen to be the first to ban plastic bags, the town leaders met at midnight. The ban went into effect just 10 days later.

It's worked, Charrier says. Now it's rare to see a plastic bag in Leaf Rapids. He was feeling pleased about the change – until he went to the town dump.

"I could not believe what I was seeing. Bags, not from our town, but from Wal-Mart and Giant Tiger in Thompson."

Shoppers from Leaf Rapids are now bringing plastic bags in from the larger city, some 200 kilometres away. "So I have Thompson's garbage in my town," Charrier says. "I've asked the mayor of Thompson to look at a bag ban, because it's affecting the entire north."

In Ireland, it's been reported that shoppers are buying more plastic bags – to line garbage bins and pick up after pets – since the fee was introduced. Environmentalists make the point that a tax or ban is not enough; consumption of plastic has to be reduced.

In Toronto, plastic bags make up only a tiny proportion of landfill – less than 1 per cent – but Charrier says a plastic-bag ban across Canada would make a difference.

As for Toronto's five-cent fee, he has two words: "Good luck.

"Five cents won't mean a thing. As long as (plastic bags) are available, people will use them. You have to get rid of them completely."

Originally published at http://www.thestar.com/printArticle/549675

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