In Toronto, Canada, the City Council on June 11 made a snap decision to ban all single-use plastic bags. The resolution came after city Mayor Rob Ford asked council to do away with a bylaw that required stores to charge five cents for plastic bags. Instead, council opted to excise the bags altogether.
The council voted 24-20 to disallow retailers from selling or giving out any plastic shopping bags, effective January 1, 2013.
Though Toronto will follow in the footsteps of U.S. cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle in banning plastic bags, it will notably have become the first major Canadian city to impose such a rule. This development may serve as a glimmer of hope for concerned environmental activists, particularly in light of planned cuts to the Canadian government's environmental assessment process, including the recent firing of top ocean scientists.
Councilor David Shiner said he spontaneously came up with the motion in the middle of the meeting. He noted the importance of environmental concerns and dismissed plastic bags as "junk." He called the ban "the most progressive move that this council has ever made.
"Less plastic use equals less plastic garbage, less litter in the street, and ultimately less cost to taxpayers. Has [this move] been a success? Absolutely, it has."
Activists believe many stores in Toronto will now switch to paper shopping bags, which don't harm wildlife, break down faster, and originate from a renewable source (trees), unlike their plastic counterparts. However, a 2006 British government study raised concern that the actual production of paper bags may have negative environmental impact.
Major supermarkets, however, are expected to eventually use reusable non-paper bags, which will likely have environmental benefits.
"A substantial shift to more durable bags would deliver environmental gains through reductions in greenhouse gases, energy and water use, resource depletion, and water," concluded a 2007 Australian study for a state agency.
Toronto's decision has now drawn the attention of other green-minded councillors across Canada, who are perhaps wondering if they could follow suit:
In Alberta, Alderman Gian-Carlo Carra said his city - Calgary - needs to "embrace the inevitability of the future and get rid of those things," meaning plastic bags.
And in Vancouver, a city that has pledged to become the world's greenest by 2020, getting rid of plastic bags is part of their 10-year plan to reach that goal. But unlike Toronto, said Councillor Andrea Reimer, Vancouver does not currently have the power to impose that kind of legislation, so they're relying on the province.
Fortunately, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark reportedly seemed more open to the idea after Toronto imposed the ban.
"Los Angeles [also] banned them, about [two weeks] before Toronto," said Reimer. "In the time since the Los Angeles ban and Toronto's, we went from saying 'no, we're not considering,' to 'well, we'll put it on the table.' So that's very positive."
Photo: A sign in Palo Alto, Calif. encourages the use of reusable bags in place of plastic ones. Two major California cities - Los Angeles and San Francisco - have now banned plastic bags. Toronto became the first major Canadian city to do the same thing. Paul Sakuma/AP