Toronto and Grocers Gang Up on Consumers

When the news broke that Toronto will require stores to start charging 5 cents for each plastic bag a customer uses to carry home the groceries or new clothes, my stomach clenched. I instantly reviled the idea.

And then I was speaking to my mother about it, about how the plastic-bag lifestyle is only a very few decades old, about how taking home the groceries in reusable bags or paper bags used to be the norm. A vague memory of string bags hanging from the cupboard door rose in my mind. We hung them there so they'd be handy to grab on our way out to the shops; they also accumulated as they'd get lost and later found or forgetful minds meant arriving at the store empty handed, and we'd buy a bunch more.

In that moment I realised that the idea of using reusable bags is not such a bad idea, but I was viscerally against it just because Toronto announced this measure. Every time City Hall issues a press release, it means more stress, more inconvenience, more money out the pocket, more bad ideas poorly implemented, more avoiding, in the words of one CityOnline caller, standing up for Torontonians and making this city a better place. In short, the air coming out of Mayor Miller's office always means hand to the nose as the city becomes more unliveable. It's so bad that even when an idea has some merit, I no longer recognize it.

However, I remain against the city imposing its will on our shopping habits. No Frills already charges 5 cents per plastic bag. Whole Foods has not used plastic bags in a long time. The Big Carrot has recently switched to corn-based bags -- which are actually quite nice and texturally more pleasant than plastic and are already in use in other stores -- and will charge for the use of plastic bags (the corn-based ones too? don't know) in the new year. Most stores, of all ilks, ask if you want a bag for your purchase. Almost every grocery store has string bags and/or reusable bags for sale; some even give them away in promotional deals. And now Loblaws will follow its No Frills kin and start charging Torontonians 5 cents per plastic bag in the new year, and four months later will extend that charge to all Canadians. In other words, big city brother does not need to impose on us its ideas of what our behaviour ought to be. (It should not anyway.) The behaviour started changing a long time ago, first slowly and now, in the way such things usually go, like an avalanche.
"Loblaws and Sobeys have pledged that any excess revenue from the bag fee will be donated to environmental non-profit causes." (John Spears, The Toronto Star, 28 November 2008).

My biggest beef with going back to reusable bags is that, unlike in the old days when cashiers were trained in how to pack a bag well and efficiently so that cold items stayed cold, fragile items did not get smushed, and all items were not tossed in like so many old potatotes, today cashiers in many stores don't have a friggin' clue how to pack a bag. Cashiers in health or natural-food stores are the worst. It's like if you're selling healthy, you don't need to know the basics of good service. Furthermore, if you have a car to keep your bags and bins in, are healthy, employed, you really won't have a problem with this. But sometimes one cannot carry around a reusable bag just to pick up a few items on the way home after a day of exhausting medical appointments. Those of us who do rely on this kind of service ought not to be penalized for our infirmities.

The plastic bag was introduced to make shopping easier and less messy.

The corn-based bag is a great alternative that retains the service but rids us of the environmental problem of the Texas-sized island of bags in the Pacific and filling up Toronto's antiquated landfills with plastic. Unfortunately, in the zeal to control our lives and in their lack of thinking, Toronto is shoving us and grocers in only one direction that costs the consumer more. And as always it's a direction that makes the lives of the worst off just that bit more difficult.


Anonymous said…
godammit. its 5 cents a bag. go buy some reusable bags and save the planet a little. cashiers will be better trained if everyone keeps bringing their own. and for the most part you can find far more inside on reusable bag than one plastic. The 5 cents could go towards new recylcing facilities and machines, or even clean up crews that could help the enviro.
Mark Dowling said…
In Ireland that bag would cost 33 cents Canadian and goes to the Government and thus doesn't keep the cost of your groceries down a dime (except for costs saved by grocers buying less bags).

The small grocers don't like this because people make impulse buys and don't have a basket or reusable bag on them.

We bought two no frills baskets and use them everywhere - has cut down on bags but we still have enough from impulse buys to deal with garbage.
goddamit Anon, read the post. What makes you think I don't have reusable bags? How would I know cashiers can't pack the damn things if I didn't just witness the throw-in style into my own? The 5 cents ain't going to clean up crews or recycling. Don't be so naive. It's going to the grocers. Besides which a paper recycling mill just closed on Commissioners Street. Miller is real interested in maintaining recycling capacity and keeping industrial taxes, especially green ones here, eh?

Mark, I doubt the grocers getting the 5 cents will keep down the cost of groceries especially with food inflation being so high.

Impulse buys is another good reason I don't agree with government sticking its fingers in. Thanks for pointing that problem out! I read that Toronto will ban corn-based bags because the city's obviously poorly designed garbage facilities can't handle them. Yet corn-based bags would solve the problem of plastic for impulse buys, while, as you well put it, having something for our own garbage bins.

Miller's ban on corn-based bags says everything one needs to know about his true greenness.