By Wayne Roberts
The looming Toronto council debate about ending the five cent fee required for disposable bags from food retailers wastes almost as much energy as plastic bags made from fossil fuels.
No matter what this council decides, the war on plastic bags has barely begun.
From a global perspective, Toronto’s decision in 2009 to introduce a five cent fee for plastic bags was more a truce than a war, so any end to the fee only ends that truce.
The original Toronto move under Mayor David Miller’s leadership started a new discussion by requiring a nominal payment for the convenience offered by plastic throwaways, a fee well below that set in Ireland or Los Angeles County (about a quarter), and a lot less strict than the developing international norm of outright bans.
In many low-income countries around the world, where plastic litter leads to flooding from clogged drains and sewers, outright bans are being adopted. Bangladesh, China, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa are among some 20 countries in the impoverished Global South where bans are the law.
The European Union will likely follow suit this fall, at the behest of the EU’s environmental commissioner, Janez Potocnik, who blames plastic bags for “suffocating the environment.” The Mediterranean is littered with 250 billion plastic remnants that can kill sea creatures.
In any country bordered by oceans, the issue is keeping plastic out of the wilds, not just out of the landfill. Plastic waste is second only to cigarette butts as litter on ocean beaches, and more than 250 species of sea creatures, including giant sperm whales, die when they accidentally swallow the indigestible plastic.
Given the complexities of packaging and containers and the inevitability of more drastic and complicated policy options if milder reforms don’t take hold, I find Toronto’s 2009 compromise a truce worth keeping because it made a litter bit of progress while buying some time to prepare comprehensive follow-up moves.
In today’s messy world, settling for Truce, not Truth, can be a sign of wisdom. This style of handling tangled public policy issues corresponds to complexity science strategies for handling what are called “wicked problems” – which not only don’t lend themselves to an easy and straightforward solution, but often have an “unintended consequence” of provoking a cure as bad as the original disease. Experts in wicked problems usually recommend the best way to cope with confounding complexity is through slow but steady practical improvements combined with open and ongoing dialogue. This explains the philosophical background to why the word “policy conversation” pops up so often these days.
There are four major positives to Toronto’s 2009 initiative, which – a sign of how fast things can change — was considered bold and precedent-setting only two years ago.
First, the plastic bag fee targeted the food industry, which normally escapes the eye of environmental campaigners. Globally. few global warming movements identify the food system as a source of a third of greenhouse gas emissions, for example. Locally, even such organizations as Toronto Environmental Alliance rarely campaign on food issues, and rejected appeals from me and several others to prioritize some food-based theme during last year’s Toronto municipal elections.
It’s crucial that food come under scrutiny because virtually no sector can rival the effects from production, consumption and disposal of some 20 billion meals a day.
Any number times three meals a day times 365 days a year times 7 billion people in the world will be a big number. That’s why the tiniest impact from food ends up with colossal impact. Torontonians toss 460 million retail plastic bags a year. Americans toss enough to make a plastic rope that circles the equator 776 times. The plastic bag brought mainstream environmental awareness to the food sector, a major step forward in public awareness.
Another reason for liking the Toronto 2009 truce is that it prioritizes reducing the problem at source, not recycling it at the end. Recycling plastic bags is better than landfilling them, but is much more expensive for taxpayers and more polluting for the environment that not bringing the problem into the world in the first place.
Third, at a time when fighting taxes and gravy stains is a major preoccupation of politics, a fee on plastic bags models a new form of tax-free and gravy-free incentives to responsible behavior.
Though not formally acknowledged in any UN charter or national constitution, packaging freedom and shopping convenience seem to have gained acceptance as worthy of public protection on par with free speech and freedom of religion.
But a free press doesn’t mean free newspapers, and free religion doesn’t mean taxpayers cover the costs of preachers. Likewise, people who exercize their freedom to express their personal values by carrying food in plastic bag should also pay the freight of their personal decision – and not freeload on other taxpayers or hoover gravy that belongs to future generations.
The full and true cost of plastic bags comes due after the product has been used as prescribed, as it would if smokers paid no special taxes on cigarettes. Plastic users offload the bags for free only because someone else pays serious money to have them picked up off the streets and ground, hauled to landfills, where global warming methane emissions from food rotting inside plastic bags and other inevitable results of plastic waste have to be offset.
So a five cent fee educates shoppers to balance freedom of choice with responsible decision-making by making a larger portion of the full cost of their decision clear at the outset. This encourages shoppers to do the right thing by the environment instead of leaving the scene of a gravy train wreck.
Fourth and finally, making progress with plastic bag waste has small-is-beautiful potential in times that often look big and bleak. In a world where half the world’s food is wasted, it’s immature to make a mountain out of the molehill of shopping bags, unless one small step in the right direction is matched by hundreds of others.
A plastic bag is what it is – no less and no more. A nickel is small change, and so is a nickel fee targeting one symbol of destructive wastefulness. It would be unfortunate if the Toronto debate allowed a five cent plastic bag fee to be turned into a be-all and end-all, instead of a modest first step.
(Adapted from NOW Magazine, June 1-8, 2011)