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Three years later, has the plastic bag fee actually worked? - Open File

February 27, 2012
Jodie Shupac
Open File

Since the early days of his election campaign, Mayor Rob Ford has decried the city’s five-cent retail plastic bag fee—a by-law implemented in June 2009—claiming it inconveniences consumers and unfairly benefits retailers.

On February 13, the issue was brought back to the forefront when the Executive Committee voted against a motion brought by Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) to scrap the plastic bag by-law altogether.

Instead, they voted to consider Councillor Michelle Berardinetti’s (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) motion to entice stores, via a tax receipt, to donate collected bag fees to municipal forestry initiatives.

But three years in, how effective has the tax been? And how does it fit into the city’s overall plans for waste diversion?

Some background

In 2007, City Council approved the establishment of a working group to advise staff on policies and practices that could help the city achieve its goal of diverting waste from the landfill by 70 per cent.

In addition to improving recycling and composting capacity, adding new items to the recycling program and launching public education campaigns, in June 2009 the Municipal Code Chapter 604, Packaging bylaw came into effect. It stipulated that retailers charge at least five cents per plastic bag.

With 2010 come and gone, the city has failed to meet its 70 per cent diversion target, coming up at 47 per cent instead. Tim Michael, director of policy and planning for the city’s Solid Waste Management Services, says that although reduced plastic bags make up less than 1 per cent of overall diversion, this can be largely attributed to the lightness of plastic bags. He maintains that the bag fee program has been quite successful.

The results

Based on four waste audits conducted by the city between June 2010 and February 2011, the generation of plastic bags has been reduced by 53 per cent; there were also 65 per cent fewer retail shopping bags to be found in residential garbage.

Because plastic bags have been permitted in the recycling bin as of 2008, Michael says the 65 per cent figure cannot be fully attributed to the bag fee. However, he maintains that the 53 per cent decrease in production of bags demonstrates the fee’s effectiveness.

“That basically means that because of the bylaw, stores gave out 53 per cent less shopping bags to their customers. So those bags were never even generated,” he says.

Michael stresses the “the beauty of the program” is that the bylaw focuses on reduction—the most beneficial method in terms of energy savings—rather than simply recycling.

“When you recycle bags, you still have to pick them up, sort them and process them…but if bags never get produced in the first place…your recycling trucks are picking up half the number of bags, the processing centre is sorting half the amount…all the environmental detriments associated with processors just don’t happen.”

In addition to conserving energy, Michael says reducing the amount of landfill waste helps save valuable land space. The city will soon be submitting a revised 70 per cent diversion plan.

Say the retailers

From the retailers’ perspective, the following grocery chains issued press releases stating they had observed considerable reductions in plastic bag consumption:

In June 2009, Metro reported that 70 per cent fewer bags were distributed in stores across Quebec and Ontario,

Loblaws reported distributing 75 per cent fewer plastic shopping bags per $1000 in sales.

According to Sarah Stover, communications manager for Sobeys Ontario, since introducing the five-cent bag fee across Ontario stores, they have seen an approximate 75 per cent decrease in consumption of plastic bags.

Says an environmental activist

Emily Alfred is a waste campaigner for the not-for-profit group, the Toronto Environmental Alliance, which advocates for a green city and acts “as an environmental watchdog at City Hall,” according to its website.

Alfred says that although TEA initially pushed for an all-out plastic bag ban, they are pleased with the relative success of the bag fee program thus far.

“It’s a great way to get people to reduce disposable packaging,” says Alfred.

Alfred points to a staff report published by the city in 2008, which cites conclusions from a Stewardship Ontario audit.

The report estimates that, in 2005, an average of 8.8 plastic retail shopping bags were generated per household per week in Toronto, representing a total generation of 457.6 million annually. This made up 6900 cubic metres of landfill capacity per year.

Although the current numbers may be lower, particularly as people are now able to recycle the bags, Alfred says plastic bags are not easily processed in the recycling plant.

Further, she says that in spite of representing less than one per cent of landfill diversion, the amount of space they take up in the landfill is significant.

“Diversion in terms of recycling is only the final step; we should be reducing packaging before it starts.”

She emphasizes that the bylaw sends a positive message, coupling incentive techniques with policy.

“While it may seem small in the overall scheme of things…it’s an incremental change in terms of changing people’s behaviour and attitudes towards packaging and waste… it’s great for the city to be pushing forward on waste reduction—not just putting it on taxpayers, but remembering that stores and producers need to be part of the equation.”

The city manager will report on incentives for businesses to donate the fees towards the city’s tree canopy in April.

As originally published here:

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