Philip Preville: Shark fins, pet store puppies, plastic bags—why Toronto city councillors like to ban things

Philip Preville: Shark fins, pet store puppies, plastic bags—why Toronto city councillors like to ban things

Philip Preville: Big Ban Theory

Rob Ford’s victories rarely last. In fact they only become more stunted as his mayoralty lurches along. For his opening salvo in office he killed Transit City; less than two years later it was reborn. Now his wins can be measured in minutes.

On June 6, council approved Ford’s proposal to end the five-cent fee on plastic shopping bags. Before he had time to gloat, council members promptly voted to make Toronto the first major Canadian city to prohibit plastic grocery bags altogether. Starting next year, Toronto retailers will provide customers with paper bags.

Ford’s objection to the bag ban is quite simple: he’s a conformist. He wants Toronto to quit messing with the rules all the time and act normal like everyone else. It’s this aspect of his personality that chafes so gratingly against the city he ostensibly rules. Toronto likes to be an early adopter of righteous urbanist innovation, a forward-thinking, environmentally and socially progressive bastion of creative-classist policy-making. Our avant-gardisme has become part of our identity.

When council voted to ban the bags—which it did rashly, without any research or consultation—its damn-the-torpedoes approach went against Toronto’s penchant for thoughtful deliberation. But the idea of a ban met with broad acceptance anyway because it felt right. It fit the mould. And therein lies the problem. The ban wasn’t about bags at all. It was about identity politics. It was the Exceptional City sticking it to Mayor Hoser. Unfortunately, it’s doomed to fail.

Toronto has been on a vigorous run of progressive policy-making over the last decade. At times, this city has been the first to permit new and worthy things, such as same-sex marriages, for which it issued the first licence in North America on June 10, 2003. On other occasions, Toronto has gone a step further and made worthy new things compulsory, such as green roofs on new buildings over 2,000 square metres (which it did last April, a first in North America) or household waste separation (the green bin program celebrates its 10th anniversary this fall). But mostly, Toronto likes to ban bad things.

Lately, council has been on a badness-banning binge. Last year, it forbade the sale of shark fins and the sale of mill-bred cats and dogs in pet stores. Two years ago, the city restricted the practice of idling a parked vehicle’s engine to 60 seconds, which, compared with the previous three-minute limit, is as close to an outright ban as it can get. In 2008, Toronto banned the sale of bottled water in city facilities. Five years before that, Toronto was among the first Ontario municipalities to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides. The city also has long-standing—and not especially progressive—bans against street hockey and just about any street food other than hot dogs.

Toronto isn’t the only Canadian municipality on the ban-wagon. The plethora of recent embargoes in Mississauga (which included shark fins and mill-bred puppies) earned it the moniker of “Canada’s nanny state” from the pro–nanny state Toronto Star. More broadly, ever since 2001—the year the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that municipalities could ban the use of non-essential pesticides—cities have been pushing the envelope of the forbidden, banning everything from teen tanning to ice cream truck calliope music.

But there’s a discrepancy between the reason cities think they ban things and the reason they actually ban them. In Toronto, we like to think we’re crafting a local version of “The Virtuous Life.” By its prohibitions shall ye know thy city: Toronto is a land of happy people and happy puppies drinking from tap-water fountains on rooftops of grass and clover and dandelions, amid breezes unspoiled by idling vehicle emissions. It’s easy, and kind of fun, to get carried away with the project. I expect someone will soon resurrect council’s long-standing flirtation with a leaf blower ban. Perhaps it will be Adam Vaughan, council’s Ban Man, who this year has also proposed prohibitions on casinos, guns and ammunition.

Alas, the real reasons for the trend are more mundane. Municipalities are perpetually broke and understaffed; bans are cheap and lazy. To wit: Toronto’s idling ban has never been fully enforced, because that would cost money. Bans also make politicians look good, because they disguise a lack of imagination with the appearance of bold action (nothing lays down the law better than a prohibition).

Which brings us back to plastic grocery bags. Anyone old enough to remember their introduction, before they became mired in controversy, will recall what a welcome improvement they were, and everyone else will learn soon enough. They puncture less often, require less muscle power and make it easier to shop without a car. Their main innovation over paper bags—the handle—proves especially useful when you’re on foot. Or pushing a stroller. Or confined to a wheelchair. Or riding a bike. No wonder the use of plastic bags has proven so difficult to dislodge as a social habit.

The unstated purpose of the bag ban is to encourage the use of reusable cloth bags. But consider the facts. A 2005 city report estimated the number of bags in use in the city of Toronto at more than 457 million. According to the Recycling Council of Ontario, the introduction of the five-cent fee has resulted in a 53 per cent decline in plastic bag use—which means that over 200 million plastic bags were still distributed in Toronto last year. Once the ban is in place, shoppers will continue to forget their cloth bags and grocery bins by the millions. Those shoppers used to be punished with a five-cent charge. Starting next year they’ll be punished with inferior, unwieldy paper bags that biodegrade instantly upon contact with the residual moisture of the milk carton. This is not merely “The Virtuous Life,” this is “The Virtuous Life or Else”: forget your reusable bag and get force-fed a dose of grief. It may even produce a groundswell of populist backlash—a welcome boon to Mayor Hoser’s re-election campaign.

Here’s an idea: instead of a five-cent fee, make it a five-cent deposit, refundable when you return the bag to your grocer, or to The Beer Store along with your empties. You’d never see another plastic bag littering the street or the beach again, as the city’s volunteer army of bottle pickers would snatch them up to collect the nickel. A deposit on bags would be a global first and surely make Toronto the world leader in plastic bag recycling, further burnishing our progressive-urbanist mojo. Granted, a deposit system would require the participation of surrounding municipalities to prevent shoppers from collecting refunds on contraband bags, but if Toronto councillors showed some leadership and made some alliances, it could be implemented across the region.

That would take time and effort. Ward-boss councillors would need to persuade their suburban counterparts to do something new and innovative. Far easier to stroke the city’s ego by banning the damn things and letting residents suffer the consequences. Prohibiting plastic bags fits with Toronto’s image of its best self, of the city we want to live in. But it’s bound to bring out our worst.


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