Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Shut up, that's why!

Marcus Gee, who in two columns has vaulted in to top contention for the worst urban columnist at a major newsdaily, graces us all with his opinion on Toronto's 5 cent plastic bag tax. This is basically a no-brainer kind of policy: retailers tend to offer free bags because it's something consumers have gotten used to, but it has all sorts of costs. Retailers, obviously, bear a direct cost of providing something for "free". More stores would charge for bags, except for the fear that they would lose out to competitors if they did so.

So the first beneficiaries -- before we even get to the letter E in environment -- are businesses. And lo, Gee can't even get that right:
There is more sanctimony than sense behind this rule, which took effect Monday and which will require even the hard-pressed corner store guy to post signs explaining the five-cent charge.
The sign, whatever it costs, will cost less than one month's order of the "free" plastic bags. In a recession, especially for small retailers, lifting the cost of bags off of the balance sheet could make a difference. I work for a large retailer, and without giving away trade secrets I can say it makes a difference for us. Smaller stores, operating on smaller margins, ought to do even better. Given that retailers are free to keep the five cents per bag, and plastic bags cost less than five cents, this is basically a win for small businesses.

Okay, but then there's the environmental aspect of things. And here, Gee goes from wrong to nonsense:
Yet plastic bags are already one of the most heavily recycled items around. People use them to line garbage bins, which means they don't have to buy garbage bags at the store. They use them for kids' school lunches. They use them to pick up after their dogs. In short, plastic bags are darned useful – so useful that most people keep a stash of them somewhere in the kitchen or the broom closet, ready to grab....

What is more, says a city report, “plastic bags do not degrade significantly over time and therefore this volume of plastic bags will persist if landfilled.”

But that is one of the plastic bag's virtues. Sitting inert in a landfill, it doesn't decompose and let off methane gas that could escape into the atmosphere or degrade and poison the soil.
A few things to unpack here:

1) Regular readers will know my skepticism of mainstream economics, but even I can figure out that if you give a bunch of people Good X for free, the demand for X will be high. And if X can reasonably be substituted for some other purposes, even imperfectly, that would otherwise cost, then people will use X. Gee sees a bunch of uses for the free plastic bag, and assumes that those uses are inherent to the plastic-ness, instead of the free-ness.

2) These bags -- especially (hopefully!) those used to line garbage cans and pick up dog feces -- are not being re-used that many times. I pack my lunch in them, you get two or three uses out of them before the holes start to form and you have to pitch them anyway. Yes, they're useful. No, that doesn't stop them -- like most of our plastics -- from ending in a landfill.

3) This is rather important: not all of our plastics are sequestered in a landfill. Indeed, much of it makes it to our rivers and lakes, from there eventually to the oceans. Gee is allegedly a journalist -- should he maybe have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? The North Atlantic has its own counterpart in the Sargasso Sea, and given that Toronto sits along one of North America's premier waterways -- and owes its existence to a direct route to the Atlantic -- it's not unreasonable to think that maybe we ought to minimize our plastic use.

We then arrive at the third and final act of this mediocrity:
So the main problem – if there is one – is the space it takes up in the ground.

But is that really such an insuperable hurdle? Since the city bought the Green Lane landfill site near London, it has had a backstop for the landfill sites in Michigan that it used to rely on so heavily. Toronto now has landfill space until at least 2024 or 2025, more than enough time to find new sites, even taking into account the huge regulatory and not-in-my-backyard difficulties. If Ontario has anything in abundance, it is space.
Right, and Toronto is so beloved by the other communities in this province -- who would never dream of making fun of us for our lack of winter preparedness, for that matter -- that they'll be happy to take our trash, ad infinitum, for a few smiles and a handshake. Oh, and of course we'll magically be able to transport our trash to these cheap, magical new dumps north of Sudbury, without cost or carbon emissions.

And I'd like a pony.

But all of Gee's column is an excercise in magical thinking. Plastic bags should be free! Why? Because shut up, that's why! And garbage doesn't cause any problems? How? Because shut up, that's how! And we'll always be able to find more places to dump our trash! Where? Shut up, that's where!

It's true that plastic bags are a small part of the overall municipal waste stream. But charging for them isn't just symbolic -- it's a cost-free way to let businesses run smarter and reduce the environmental impact of daily shopping. And if we can make this work, then yes, let's take on the disposable drinks and bottled water while we're at it. So you've got to wonder: what's not to love?

Actually, scratch that. You've got to wonder: why is Marcus Gee getting paid by the Globe and Mail?


Jennifer Smith said...

What an ass - and what a ridiculous thing to devote an entire column to complain about!

The Loblaws Superstore in Milton has been 'plastic bag free' since it opened. You can't even buy them there. People still forget and some can be seen juggling armloads of loose groceries when they're to cheap to shell out a buck for a reusable bag. But in general, people just take it in stride.

What's fascinating is to see how many people in town have come to use the black Loblaws reusables for everything from book bags to overflow laundry bags.

Anonymous said...

Yeesh. What a stupid thing to write a column about. The sense of entitlement that some folks have is just shocking. Especially over such minor things like plastic bags. And does he even bother to think about the USEFUL things that could be produced from the plastic that goes into those bags? The fewer disposable objects made from plastic that we have, the more we can use those raw materials for more durable, longer lasting plastic goods. And those goods can become cheaper because there'll more raw material on the market to make them if we're making fewer disposable items.

My question is - if the business owners are free to keep the nickel, what's to stop them from just not charging for the bags? How is this going to be enforced? It sounds like a decent idea, but I could see it getting subverted by a large grocery store that tries to one-up its local competition by saying that they'll "eat the cost" of the tax themselves to "save you money". Wal*Mart especially comes to mind as someone who would play that kind of game.


Anonymous said...

Shhh. Don''t be too critical of Gee. At least he's only writing about plastic bags, where he can do little damage, instead of writing about international politics, where he is always a calamity.

The Mound of Sound said...

Gee Marcus should be left to gnaw on plastic bags. The man is a fool. Just go back into G&M archives and see his drum beating rants for the invasion of Iraq.

Glendon Mellow said...

Great assessment of the article, I couldn't agree more.

One concept being brought to school kids these days is the concept of "away". You can't throw things "away", you have to throw it somewhere specific. Plastic bags are not free, and the don't go away unless less are created.

I think Gee seriously confuses re-use with recycle.

LanceThruster said...

What I don't understand is that plastic waste can liners are still sold. If the problem is the bag itself, can liners create the same waste product. I reuse the bags I carry groceries home in for the liners. No cost to me and it eliminates the need for purchased can liners.