Terence Corcoran, National Post Staff Jun 7, 2012
In star-struck liberal green Los Angeles, it took a full-court press by environmental groups, major propaganda efforts, endorsement by the roll-over editorialists at the Los Angeles Times, and deployment of Hollywood stars, such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Peter Fonda, to work up the political steam needed to prompt L.A.’s city council to vote last month to ban plastic bags.
In starless Toronto, all it took was a bunch of dumb city councillors who suddenly decided — seemingly out of the blue — to stage a surprise vote.
“Ban the bags,” somebody said. “Good idea. Let’s vote!” Passed: 27 to 17
No study, no research, no public review, no thought, no concept and no brains. What’s the environmental and fiscal impact of the ban? Nobody knows, although many people say the cost to both the city and the environment will be greater than the cost of using plastic bags.
Plastic bags are one of the great inventions of the 20th-century plastics explosion. However, in Toronto, as in many other cities, politics is a parlour game played by small-time power seekers who don’t really give a damn if what they do or say makes any sense. Given half a chance, today’s bag ban will become tomorrow’s automobile ban.
Right or left, it doesn’t seem to matter. As I understand what happened at Toronto council Wednesday, the first vote on whether to ban plastic bags by 2014 failed in a 22 — 22 draw. That’s when alleged right-wing council member David Shiner saw an opportunity make his mark. When you’re a small-time politician, you get your kicks out of small things. Banning the bags, said Mr. Shiner, is “the most progressive move that this council’s ever had.”
Plastic bags are a trivial part of Toronto’s garbage system, and a microscopic issue relative to the scale of the city’s problems. But never mind. Days and weeks will now be dedicated to sorting out plastic bag ban rules, regulations, policies and timing.
If the plastics industry doesn’t sue the city over this, it deserves what it gets. For years, the bag industry has been co-operating with city officials, marching out the “Four Rs” — reduce, reuse, recycle and whatever — in naïve adherence to the principles of sustainable development; principles that green activists and politicians claim to accept but, in fact, only use to co-opt industry and play power politics.
In the wake of the bag ban, the retailers who use the bags emerged to deliver waffling public statements. The Retail Council, Loblaws, others — they hung the plastic bag industry out to dry, saying they would do whatever council said they should do, whether it made any sense or not.
And none of it makes sense. Without store-supplied plastic bags, consumers will be forced to use alternatives: paper bags, cloth bags or plastic bags they will buy at the Canadian Tire in vaster quantities.
Is this good or bad, environmentally or economically? Rick Smith, the head of Environmental Defense, appeared on CTV Thursday to make dismissive comments about the plastics industry and the plastic bag itself. He knows the file well, having been instrumental in warping Ontario policy and in getting the Ontario liquor board to drop plastic bags a few years ago.
“They’re horrendous,” he said, which is something he more or less says about everything.
Actual science is not something Mr. Smith likes to take on. On CTV Thursday, the only horrendousness he mentioned was to claim that vast quantities of the used plastic bags are “blowing around everywhere.” They are not, but Mr. Smith doesn’t much care.
Plastic bags are mostly recycled and reused. They are also, apparently, an integral part of the city’s organic waste collection system. Residents are required to bag their wet organics in plastic bags — bags that will soon cease to be available unless they’re bought separately.
Then there’s the question of whether plastic bags or better or worse that other alternatives. Rick Smith scoffs at the idea that banning plastic bags might be worse for the economy and the environment. Local jobs lost? Get used to it, says Mr. Smith. Environmental costs are greater from non-plastic? Ridiculous.
But I have before me a copy of a 2011 U.K. Environment Agency report titled “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags.” The report says conventional plastic bags “had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight bags.” Biodegradable starch-based bags had the “highest” impact in seven of nine environmental assessment categories, mainly due to “high impacts of raw material production, transport and the generation of methane from landfill.”
Paper bags? “The paper bag has to be reused four or more times to reduce global warming potential to below that of the conventional HDPE [High-density polyethylene] bag, but was significantly worse…for human toxicity and terrestrial eco-toxicity due to the effect of paper production.” Making matters worse for paper, the U.K. report said it is “unlikely” that a paper bag can actually be reused four times.
As for reusable cotton bags, which are viewed in Los Angeles as the favoured alternative, the U.K. agency said those were worse than plastic even if they’re reused more than 170 times, mainly due to the “energy used to produce cotton yarn and the fertilizers used during the growth of the cotton.”
The conclusion on plastic bags, a marvel of usefulness, is that the plain ordinary bag — when used and reused as shopping bags, garbage bin liners, and for other purposes — is better for the environment than the other options.
The Toronto bag ban, possibly illegal, is certainly harmful to the city, and to the environmental principles the politicians claim to uphold. And that’s before we even start talking about the grotesque infringement in the rights of citizens to make their own decisions.