Plastic Bag Ban -- FAQs

For more background on how the plastic bag ban was proposed in June 2012, and then defeated in November 2012.

Is it just retail bags that would be banned?

Yes. The only type of bag that was going to be banned is disposable plastic shopping bags -- the bags that retailers used to charge 5 cents for. Residents can choose to buy or not buy plastic bags for their own use, and plastic bags for fruit and vegetables will still be available in stores.

The ban would mean that as a City, we’ve sent a clear signal that single-use, disposable plastic bags, are no longer going to pollute our parks, ravines, and take 1000 years or more to ‘break down’ in the landfill

What about biodegradable/compostable bag?

Ultimately, any bag that is made to be used once and thrown away is bad for the environment. The amount of energy and raw materials put into a product is wasted if its used only once. The best environmental choice is to choose reusable products and less wasteful ways of carrying our groceries or lining our green bins (see below!).

Many ‘biodegradable’ bags are not actually environmentally friendly, as they simply break down from one large plastic bag into small flakes of plastic. These flakes of plastic persist in the environment and cause environmental harm.

'Compostable' bags are far less common, and are made of vegetable-based oil with the intention to break down completely into organic matter. Unfortunately, 'compostable' bags will only break down in specific conditions of air and light -- in a landfill, in the absence of air and light, compostable bags are unlikely to decompose. Compostable bags actually require more energy in production than non-compostable bags.

What do I use in my green bin?

Toronto's green bin program is key to achieving high levels of waste diversion, and it's been designed to be easy to participate in, so there are many options for green bins:

You can line your outdoor green bin cart with a larger plastic bag, or cellulose-lined kraft paper bag (a heavy paper bag with waterproof lining), and simply empty the kitchen green bin contents directly into it. Just tie or roll up the cart liner bag on garbage day.

  • Don't line your kitchen green bin at all - Fortunately, kitchen green bin collectors are easy to wash by hand or in the dishwasher, so keeping them clean is simple. Simply empty the kitchen green bin contents directly into a lined outdoor green bin cart (see option above).

  • Use paper in your kitchen green bin- You can use paper bags or newspaper to line your kitchen green bin and empty those into your outdoor green bin cart (line you outdoor cart with plastic or paper if necessary - see above). Watch thisvideo on how to make a simple bin liner out of old newspapers. You can also buy cellulose-lined kraft paper bags (like large yard waste bags) specially-designed to fit kitchen counter green bins

  • Use other plastic bags - You can use other plastic bags (e.g. bread bags, milk bags, produce bags), or you can buy bags designed to fit green bins at most grocery or hardware stores.

  • *NOTE: In Toronto, all plastic bags used in green bins are removed before the composting process. You can buy compostable bio-plastic bags designed for green bins, and for pet waste, but they will be removed along with all other plastic bags during processing of organics, and sent to landfill as residual waste. In the landfill they’re not likely to ‘compost’ due to the absence of light and air, so there’s no major environmental benefit for using compostable bags.

  • (Some municipalities use a different composting process and require the use of paper or compostable bag liners for green bins).

What do I do with dog poop?

Pet waste can still be collected in plastic bags - bread bags, produce bags etc are a good size. Residents can buy bags especially for pet waste. Pet waste (in any type of plastic bag) is accepted in Toronto’s green bin.

*Note, you can buy compostable bio-plastic bags designed for pet waste, but they will be removed along with all other plastic bags during the processing of organics, and sent to landfill as residual waste. In the landfill they’re not likely to ‘compost’ due to the absence of light and air, so there’s no major environmental benefit for using compostable bags.

Wouldn’t a bag ban be difficult for stores and plastic bag companies? Would people lose jobs?

There are many options for stores. Retailers in Toronto already offer reusable bags for sale (required since the bag fee by-law came into effect in 2009), and many have paper bags, shopping baskets or bins available as well.

There are many manufacturers of paper, cloth and reusable bags in Ontario and Toronto, and they would all do very well if retailers stopped using plastic bags. A number of paper or reusable bag companies expect significantly increased business.

How exactly would a plastic bag ban help the environment?

Ultimately, we need to move away from being a disposable society, and focus on conserving resources for current, and future generations. We can’t keep up with this level of waste, simply for convenience.

Plastic is made from oil, a non renewable resource, and requires significant energy to be processed, and ultimately recycled or disposed. Plastic bags also pollute the environment - blowing around in parks and getting stuck in trees, floating in Toronto’s ravines and on the beach - and ultimately harm wildlife!

How long does it take for a plastic bag to break down?

We don’t know how long it takes for plastic bags to fully break down into organic matter - some estimate 1000 years - because we’ve only had plastic retail bags in widespread use since the 1970s. It would likely take longer for bags to break down in a landfill (in a tightly-compacted landfill space, the lack of light and air prevents the decomposition process).

What is the impact of plastic bags vs paper bags, cloth bags, or plastic reusable bags?

Reusable bags are the best choice, and, as with anything, it’s best if these are made from renewable, non-toxic and low-impact materials. Simply substituting disposable plastic bags with disposable paper bags is not a good solution.

Plastic bags are made from a non-renewable resource, petroleum, and they never fully break down. Even when they do break down, they simply become tiny flakes of plastic. In a landfill, it’s likely they’ll never break down as the landfill is compacted so tightly. While they can be recycled, contamination is a big problem, and recycling also takes energy and resources, and results in a lower quality plastic.

Paper bags are often made of recycled paper, and they are made from a renewable resource. They’re much easier to recycle (and people are more likely to recycle them according to many studies), and they break down quickly in the environment (if they were to get away).

Are reusable bags a health issue? Some people say that bacteria growing in a bag that’s been reused many times can be a serious health problem?

Reusable bags are completely safe to use and not a health concern at all - they just need to be washed.

Plastics Industry spokespeople claim that reusable bags are dirty and unsanitary. But, Health Canada, Toronto Public Health and others have confirmed that reusable bags pose no significant health threat, and simply need to be laundered on a regular basis! In fact, the shopping cart in the grocery store, and any coins or money in your pocket likely has more bacteria than a reusable bag (and they can’t be thrown in the laundry!).

What happened at Council in June 2012? Who voted for the ban?

In June 2012, Council was debating and discussing a recommendation from Mayor Ford's Executive Committee to end the Plastic Bag Fee in Toronto. Many other ideas were suggested and presented as options, including Councillor Michelle Berardinetti's motion to keep the very successful Bag Fee and to add a mechanism to encourage retailers to donate the profits from the bag fee to support Toronto's tree canopy. Councillors Peruzza and Shiner both proposed banning plastic bags altogether, and Councillor Shiner's motion won enough votes to pass.

The relevant part of the motion is: “That City Council prohibit all City of Toronto retail stores from providing customers with single-use plastic carryout (shopping) bags, including those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photodegradable or similar effective January 1, 2013.

It was proposed by conservative Ford-ally Councillor David Shiner, and passed by a vote of 27 to 17

See the final decision text, including how each Councillor voted* here:

*Note: Councillor Josh Matlow voted against Shiner's motion in error, he intended to vote 'Yes' though his recorded vote is 'No'

Did the Motion receive support from all political perspectives?

Yes. A majority of councillors voted for the ban, including councillors from all political perspectives and all parts of the city. In fact, three members of Mayor Ford's hand-picked Executive Committee as well as another ally of Mayor Ford voted for the ban.

The idea was proposed by fiscally conservative Councillor David Shiner, for fiscal reasons. Councillor Shiner explained that he doesn’t think cities should have to pay for the litter pick up, waste collection or recycling of the packaging and product choices of stores and corporations, including bags. By focusing on reducing waste (the first of the 3 R's), the City saves money.

Are Torontonians ready for a bag ban?

Torontonians changed behaviour very rapidly after the bag fee was introduced - bag use dropped by more than 53%, and up to 80% in many major stores (Some information here). 90% of Torontonians surveyed agreed the bag fee changed their behaviour within a year of the ban. All of this shows that Torontonians were ready and willing to adapt very quickly to the bag fee, and we believe they’re ready for a full ban.

Retailers are already required to offer reusable bags for sale in Toronto (part of the bag fee by-law), and many people already own a reusable bag, or use boxes or bins to carry their groceries.

Since the draft by-law that would enforce bag ban was rejected, Council now has additional time to consult with Toronto residents and retailers to prepare for bag reduction measures.