November 26, 2008
City Hall Bureau
Toronto shoppers will have to pay five cents for every plastic shopping bag they get from stores in the city under a proposal worked out between the city and big grocery companies.
Industry officials from the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors – which represents the large grocery chains – have called a news conference today to announce what they are billing as an "alternative proposal" to the city's plan to curb plastic bags.
But since Mayor David Miller's office relayed the news release, and Miller himself will attend the event at a city garbage transfer station, the big grocers' proposal appears to have his blessing.
Council approval would be needed for a bylaw putting the nickel-a-bag fee in place. Instead of being required to give customers a 10-cent refund for every bag eliminated, as the city originally proposed, grocery stores and retailers will probably be able to keep the money.
At the same time, they will need to commit to firm deadlines for sharply reducing or eliminating plastic bags not designed for reuse. That's likely to mean promising to slash plastic bag use by 70 per cent as of 2012, though another proposal would require eliminating throwaway bags totally at some later date.
Grocery stores have lobbied fiercely against the original recommendations in a city staff report, released earlier this month, which would have applied the 10-cent-per-bag refund requirement to all city retailers.
The same report said takeout coffee shops should have to give a 20-cent refund to customers who bring their own mugs. But after loud protests from restaurants, city officials agreed to take a second look at the coffee cup proposal and report back next spring.
Grocery stores and other retailers were not offered the same breathing space on the shopping bag issue. That set off a round of furious lobbying and negotiating by the big players so as to reach a compromise by the time council next meets on Dec. 1 and 2.
Retailers had complained that under the city's proposal, it would be difficult to judge how many throwaway bags had been saved when customers brought their own bags.
They also complained that the 10-cent refund would drive up their costs – and therefore increase grocery prices.
Negotiations over the past 10 days produced a revised plan: Instead of refunding money for bags saved, shoppers will have to pay a nickel every time they walk away with a nonreusable bag. Some discount stores like No Frills already charge for grocery bags.
Allowing retailers to keep the money allows the city to argue that the charge is not a tax. There are limits on the city's taxing powers and an attempt to levy a tax on plastic bags would probably be challenged in court.
In fact, city staff clearly advised in their report this month that "a tax or fee on plastic retail shopping bags is not feasible under the City of Toronto Act."
But some retailers may still opt to challenge the city's right to require a charge on bags, no matter who gets to keep the money.