Toronto the Stupid: City’s new plastic bag bylaw a classic, back-of-a-cocktail napkin kind of thing

Last Wednesday night, Toronto’s City Hall was trying to mop up one of their own messes.

They were reviewing their price-fixing policy for all retailers in the city — they had previously passed a bylaw requiring every Toronto retail store to charge customers five cents for a plastic bag, whether those stores wanted to or not.

It’s a pointless law.

It’s a busybody law.

It doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally.

It’s just a layer of red tape. And according to critics, it’s a dictionary definition of price-fixing — when businesses collude to drive up prices and tamper with natural competition.

If you have trouble grasping that, imagine if city hall ordered every gas station in town to charge the same, inflated price per litre, too — in the name of environmentalism, natch. The Competition Bureau would stop those shenanigans.

So, while trying to clean up their price-fixing mess, they of course created another.

With no notice, with no consultation, with no thought, one allegedly conservative councillor, David Shiner, just blurted out an idea: Let’s ban plastic bags altogether!

And, of course, they did.

After Dec. 31, it will be illegal to give out or even sell a plastic bag at a store.

The bylaw is poorly drafted — a classic, back-of-a-cocktail-napkin kind of thing.

It refers to “carryout shopping bags.” What does that mean? Can you have little plastic bags that you then put in bigger paper bags? What about the plastic bags at the fruit and vegetable section? Is it illegal to just carry one of those out?

Well, that kind of ambiguous legal work is considered a bonus in politics — because it will be the source for many more meetings and bylaws. Red tape begets red tape.

What is the motivation for the bylaw?

If you said the environment, you’re wrong.

Plastic bags are environmentally sound — inert, non-toxic, low energy to make and ship, and are a natural byproduct from clean natural gas.

But the bylaw specifically bans the new technology plastic bags, too.

Shiner’s law bans all plastic bags “including those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photodegradable or similar.”

Huh? Why?

And why would the city spend tens of millions of dollars on an elaborate recycling program, only to then ban plastic bags of any sort?

Aren’t plastic shopping bags good because they are so easy to recycle — and are so commonly reused by people for everything from lining garbage bins to picking up dog poop?

Toronto as a city is broken. Taxes are high; traffic is jammed; there are gangland shootouts in downtown malls. There are a lot of things to fix.

But those are tough problems to solve.

Banning plastic bags is easy — as easy as a barroom Napoleon ranting and raving to his buddies about how he’s got all the world’s problems solved, from Mideast peace to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ losing streak, if only he was in charge.

City halls specialize in these pointless, showy barroom Napoleon moments.

Usually they’re just PR exercises to prove the moral righteousness of otherwise non-newsworthy junior politicians.

But sometimes — like the bag ban — they will cost families millions of dollars, and make the environment worse.

Toronto is looking for a new city motto.

Unofficially, it used to be Toronto the Good.

If city hall is the example, I propose Toronto the Stupid.

This column appeared in the Sun Chain June 10 2012.

Ezra Levant

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