Monday, August 24th, 2009

Hey, Toronto! Give Me Back My Nickel!

I just got back from Toronto, Canada, where I attended part of ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership's Annual Meeting. My main reason for being there was to receive our blog's Gold Circle Award.  But in addition to walking across the stage to receive our award, there were many exciting and interesting things at the meeting — from  standing in line for the St. Louis Build-a-Bear to learning more tips on how to make this blog even more interesting for readers. On the plastics front, one incident in particular stands out.

receiptWhile in Canada, I had my first encounter with a plastic bag tax. Implemented in June, 2009 the Toronto Plastic Bag Tax requires that all retailers, no matter how big or small, charge customers a 5-cent tax if consumers do not bring their own re-usable containers (bags or bins).  Stores get to keep the 5-cent tax. I got taxed when I ordered dinner-to-go from a Chinese restaurant in downtown Toronto.

I understand that there are concerns about litter.  I am a proud recycler (for the most part) and I fully support recycling of all materials. But as a visiting tourist, something about my particular scenario in the Chinese restaurant seems a tad odd. As a visitor to Toronto, am I supposed to bring my own re-usable bag to the restaurant?  Should the cashier have at least given me the option of hand-carrying my food before placing the container in the 5-cent bag? Should Tourism Toronto have somehow warned me upon entering the city that Toronto is a BYOB (bring your own bag) city? Or is it now up to travelers to investigate bag laws before embarking on a trip so they can diligently pack bags along with a toothbrush?  OK, it's only 5 cents, but the tax does beg some questions.

I can't help but wonder if the bag tax is even an effective deterrent to litter. Five cents (or about 4 US cents) is hardly enough to effectively deter people from going ahead and getting the new bag. (Then again, the 20-cent tax that recently got rejected by Seattle was too much.)  And who says that “purchased” bag doesn't still get irresponsibly thrown out rather than recycled?  While many large chain stores state that they will use the collected tax money to fund recycling programs, why should the smaller retailers get to keep the 5-cent tax – rather than putting the funds toward recycling promotion?  Currently, the large metal recycling containers that seem to be on every street corner of downtown Toronto have three compartments: one each for cans/bottles, papers and waste.  Why not add an additional slot for plastic bags?

Ultimately, since I only used one plastic bag on this trip, the tax didn't have a huge impact on my wallet. But it did leave an impression on me. A city that seemed so clean and appeared to care about recycling decided to “punish” me for not bringing my own bag 350 miles from home.

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5 Responses to “Hey, Toronto! Give Me Back My Nickel!”

  1. At least the nickel got you thinking about the issue. As we become more aware of the carbon footprint of our various activities, we need to consider how we will change our behavior.

    In this particular case, we are helped by some of the desirable characteristics of plastics: low weight and high strength. For example, a plastic grocery bag folded over four times and rolled up can be secured with a rubber band to make a light weight object about the size of a lipstick. How hard is it to throw this in your handbag or pocket? A nylon shopping bag with attached stuff-sack makes a package of 2.5 in x 3 in x 1 in–lightweight and easily packable.

    We think nothing of taking an umbrella when we walk in unfamiliar cities on the off chance that there may be rain. What’s wrong with packing an even smaller and lighter plastic or nylon bag for possible purchases? Even if the city doesn’t ding you for a bag tax, you still get multiple use from the bag and keep it out of a landfill.

  2. Richard – It isn’t really the inconvenience of taking a plastic bag with me to Toronto that prompted this post. You are correct that folding one up takes very little space, or I could even re-use one that I use to wrap shoes/shampoo. The question more-so was 1) should Toronto have marketed (or warned) the BYOB status and 2) how is taxing consumers actually improving the environment if it’s not enough to deter/change habit and the funds aren’t being re-invested into sustainability efforts?

    With regards to your umbrella point…I would only take an umbrella to a new city if I had checked the weather reports and they had said “chance of rain.” Which goes back to the question of whether tourists would have to investigate bag laws before visiting a city.

  3. No, I don’t agree that it is the Toronto’s responsibility to inform you about the bag tax. I do think that the restaurant should have notified you about the charge and given you the option to decline a bag, essentially they were forcing a purchase on you that you did not agree to. Did you ask to give them back the bag and have the charge removed?

    Metro grocery stores are reporting a “70 per cent reduction in the number of single-use grocery bags distributed”
    http://www.metro.ca/corpo/centre-nouvelles/communiques2009/20090629.en.html

    Clearly the tax is having an effect on consumers and perhaps changing habits. I assume the environment would benefit because if fewer disposable bags are distributed, fewer will end up in landfills or as litter. That’s not to say the rate of recycling of these bags is going up, that is probably another challenge altogether. But awareness of the issue is a good first step.

  4. jw – Honestly, I didn’t even realize I’d been charged for the bag until I’d gotten back to the hotel room. Since I was several blocks away from the hotel and had multiple things in my hands already, I don’t know that I would have given the bag back if given the option.

    I agree that awareness of an issue is a good first step. I think that promoting and educating people about recycling and encouraging communities to offer single-stream recycling might offer a more lasting change than attempting to change people’s habits through a tax.

  5. Hi Rachel!

    I live in a municipality considerably to the far east of Toronto yet many of the stores here have adopted the 5¢ plastic bag fee.

    I asked if there was a similar by-law in my municipality as in Toronto and there is not. The stores simply took it upon themselves to duplicate the Toronto by-law.

    Stores have always charged for plastic bags – it’s built into the cost of the products.

    Has this “hidden” plastic bag fee been dropped from the price of products since the advent of the new 5¢ fee? I seriously doubt it. So, in addition to that “hidden” fee, the stores are also raking in the 5¢ fee.

    What’s even more unethical is that customers who bring in their own bags may not pay the 5¢ per bag but are still charged the “hidden” fee.

    The stores outside of Toronto have no obligation to charge the 5¢ plastic bag fee but do so voluntarily.

    No municipal by-law says they have to charge the amount and like Toronto, the stores get to keep the cash and/or may donate some to a highly non-transparent environmental program, the results of which are questionable at best.

    In the end, less plastic bags may be used but I feel that it’s the stores that are “cleaning up” at the cash registers, with the customers getting no real benefit what so ever.