Friday, December 19, 2008

Toronto's Bag and Bottle Ban

On December 3rd, Toronto City Council approved a controversial surcharge on plastic bags. Effective June 1, 2009, consumers will have to pay five cents for each disposable plastic shopping bag. Once the fee goes into effect, retailers will be required to accept reused bags or other containers.

Toronto Council also joined other Canadian cities such as Vancouver and London by banning the sale and distribution of bottled water at City Hall. Arenas and other city-owned facilities won’t have to follow suit until the end of 2011. The move came despite heavy lobbying from the bottled water industry, which is desperate to keep the very lucrative myth alive that bottled water is a necessary commodity.

“I don’t believe that as Canada’s largest purveyor of tap water we should be selling water in our facilities,” said Mayor David Miller in defense of the ban.

Toronto’s actions come one month after a private members bill to ban water bottles sales across the province was defeated in the Ontario legislature. The province has yet to tackle a surcharge or ban on shopping bags.

The common element with bags and bottles is plastic, and the common problem is blatant consumerism.

Let’s start with bottled water. The bottling and selling of water is arguably the marketing success story of the century. Specifically, bottled water sales now top $ 100 billion annually, making water the world's fastest growing beverage industry. Small wonder why the bottled water lobbyists worked so hard to prevent a ban by Canada’s largest city.

The majority of people who consume bottled water also have access to clean tap water, as Mayor David Miller recently pointed out. The only difference between the water that pours from the faucet and bottled water is the cost. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times more than municipal tap water. And while we rant and rave if gas prices go above the $ 1.00 per litre mark, most of us routinely pay twice that amount for half as much water.

And then there’s the waste. Most water bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (or PET), a plastic derived from crude oil. According to Emily Arnold, a researcher with the Earth Policy Institute, this translates into 1.5 million barrels of oil used annually in the US alone, or enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. On a global scale, we use 2.7 million tons of plastic just to bottle water, very little of which is ever re-captured through recycling programs. The remaining bottles are tossed into our landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to break down. When you add it all up, it seems like a ridiculous waste of a finite resource for a simple drink of water.

Over to plastic bags – another disposable product made from the same non-renewable resource, oil. Globally, an estimated 500 billion single-use plastic bags are distributed for free every year.

“Free” is the key word here. The cost of providing plastic bags to customers in the US costs retailers an estimated $ 4 billion annually, which is ultimately passed on to the consumer. Given the Canadian marketplace is about one-tenth the size of the US, this roughly translates into $ 400 million for Canadian retailers.

When you consider the cost of providing plastic bags to customers, it would seem logical that retailers would be leading the charge to eliminate them. But they’re not. The reason, quite simply, is that many of those 500 billion plastic bags carry company logos of the companies who distribute them, effectively turning each bag into a mini billboard. Talk about a marketing bonanza!

But the real problem with plastic water bottles and bags isn’t their disposability. It’s their durability. Scientists estimate that they can remain in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years.

“Plastic is still plastic,” said Dr. Anthony Andrady, a senior research scientist at North Carolina’s Research Triangle. “The material still remains a polymer. Polyethylene is not biodegraded in any practical time scale.”

Toronto’s actions are considered newsworthy – and that’s what’s wrong with this picture. Given the economic and environmental costs of creating single use products out of plastic, every jurisdiction should be taking aggressive steps to eliminate them altogether.


To read more about the environmental impacts of plastic, read Alan Wiseman’s stunning article, Polymers are Forever, which is available online at While you’re there, buy a subscription (or two) of this amazing magazine for those special people on your Christmas list.

For more interesting facts about plastic bags, visit


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