Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

The mayor of nickels and bags

By: Metro Canada Published on Tue May 22 2012

Pop quiz: what's more relevant to the future of this city than the five cents we pay for plastic bags?

The answer, of course, is EVERYTHING.

It's hard to think of an issue that matters less than the nickels we toss down when we need a disposable bag at the grocery store, and yet still the mayor's office seems to have seized on this as the next major item on their political agenda after finding, um, let's say mixed success with the budget and transit. In an era where Toronto is building more high-rise developments than every other city in North America and is set to embark on some $10 billion in major infrastructure expansion, the mayor is talking about plastic bags. While we struggle with a $750 million repair backlog at TCHC and pieces of our highways literally fall to the ground at random, Rob Ford is pointing his finger at nickels.

He'd focus on pennies, but those won't exist in a few months.

For Ford, this is the kind of thing that's in his DNA. His political career has been defined by his sweating of the small stuff, often at the detriment of the big picture. That's why he's able to do things like tell us he can save billions of dollars solely by cutting things like office expenses and community grants. It's why he believes a Toronto casino will somehow generate a hundred million dollars in net revenues, even though no municipality in Ontario gets anywhere close to that. Actual numbers have never been very important to his core beliefs – with Ford's math, $1 million quickly becomes $10 million then $100 million. At this point, we just have to accept that.

It's harder to forgive the other councillors on the mayor's executive committee, many of whom went along with the mayor's crusade to kill the mandatory fee at last week's meeting. Some even reversed their stance from a January vote, when the same committee turned down a motion to kill the fee. They should know better.

What's their angle? By all accounts – even the mayor's – the five cent fee has been remarkably effective in reducing bag use in the city. A 53% drop is nothing to sneeze at. Even better: it's cost the city virtually nothing to achieve that reduction. This wasn't a law that required a new bureaucracy or an expensive enforcement mechanism. It just worked. And enough retailers have donated the new revenue to charitable causes to have an impact – a recently-torched playground in High Park will be rebuilt using some charitable funds raised by corporate partners through the bag fee.

Council would love it if all their environmental initiatives were half as effective as this one has been. Less waste and litter? Bonus charitable benefit? Virtually no cost to the taxpayer? Sign me up.

But yes, some particularly vocal people hate it. These bag fee opponents make absurd arguments that suggest reusable bags are dangerous health hazards and actually worse for the environment than plastic bags somehow. They rage against the extra money retailers are making from the forced fee. They like to call it a “bag tax” even though it isn't. When you get right down to it, however, these people mostly just seem put off by the very act of paying the fee itself. They hate being forced to drop a nickel for something that used to be given to them for free.

And that's petty. That's the only word to describe this attitude. They stand against an effective policy that costs them little more than pocket change.

As for council, this issue is simply irrelevant. Yes, Rob Ford will always be hung up on low-impact policies, symbolic waste-cutting and petty pandering, but councillors – on the left and on the right – can do better. At their next meeting, they should reverse the executive committee's recommendation to kill the fee and approve Councillor Michelle Berardinetti's motion to collect donations for the city's tree canopy. Then they should never bring this up again.

It's time to ignore the nickels and look at more important kinds of change.

Coming up: In the absence of real leadership, five issues council should look at next. (Spoiler: a casino isn't on the list.)

This post was originally published at on 2012-05-22T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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