Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Miller's bag fee a plastic rap

by Sue-Ann Levy,

A few days ago, a reader called me, outraged that a store in Thornhill’s Promenade Mall was charging what he called (Toronto Mayor) “David Miller’s 5¢ plastic bag fee.”
Knowing that Thornhill hadn’t put in place a bylaw similar to Toronto’s, he asked the manager of the As Seen On TV store, why they were doing it.
He said he was given two answers: First, that “everyone else is charging for the bags” and secondly, customers had asked them to do it .
He found both answers suspect.
“I was really, really dumbfounded,” said the man, who requested anonymity.
After contacting the As Seen on TV head office, Michael Chalmers, the store’s president of sales and marketing, sent me back an e-mail indicating they started charging the 5¢ fee on July 23 at their six locations in Ontario, none of which are in Toronto.
“We hope to encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags,” he wrote, claiming that, in just five days, they’d managed to divert more than 2,000 plastic bags from landfill.
A blatant cash grab or environmental benefit?
It remains to be seen which result the fee better achieves.
Bylaw 356, introduced in Toronto on June 1, 2009, mandated all retailers in the city to begin charging 5¢ for each plastic retail shopping bag requested.
As of July 1, 2010 all Ontario retailers are charging HST of 1¢ as well, bringing the total cost of each bag to 6¢.
When it approved the bylaw, Toronto council also directed retailers to reinvest the extra funds collected from bag fees into community or environmental initiatives, or to use them to mark down the price of reusable bags they sell.
One thing is for certain. The large chain and grocery stores have embraced the 5¢ fee – so much so they have not only extended it to stores beyond the 416 area code but, in several cases, right across Canada as well.
Loblaws, Ikea, Rona and Home Depot are just a few of the chain stores 5¢ for bags right across the country. Sobeys charges the fee at all Ontario stores.
Shopper’s Drug Mart rolled out the fee July 1 to all stores in Ontario, the western provinces and the Territories, driven in part by the response of customers, said spokesman Tammy Smitham.
“Ultimately consumers are changing their Behaviour ... it’s becoming the new norm for customers,” said Smitham.
Not at all retailers feel that way, however. Some smaller businesses in Toronto, already dealing with a sluggish economy, have opted out entirely.
One shop owner, who sells high-end women’s wear along the Eglinton Way, told me she’s “embarrassed” to ask customers to pay for a bag after they’ve spent a sizable amount on clothing.
Those charging for bags proudly claim it’s all in the name of being environmentally conscious.
They’re so determined to jump on the Eco-bandwagon, it seems, that the fee has spawned a side industry of trendy Eco-friendly bags, some made of cloth and some with a coating of the very plastic that we are supposed to be diverting from landfill. Each bag, on average costing 99¢, shamelessly advertises the chain store that has created it.
In one sense the fee is really much ado about nothing – a convenient way for retailers to look like they’re doing something, while continuing to sell a long list of products encased in not-so-environmentally friendly packaging.
For one thing, the plastic bags are recyclable. The city started accepting them in blue bins six months before the bylaw came into effect. Many customers like me, still needing plastic bags to line our green bins and to pick up dog poop, have been forced to buy other bags off the grocery shelf .
Just one month ago, Health Canada issued a warning about Eco-friendly bags, advising consumers to be careful about cross-contamination from foods (particularly meats) that are carried in them.
Vince Sferrazza, director of policy and planning for the city’s solid waste division, said the city is “compiling the data as we speak” on whether plastic bag usage has actually decreased in Toronto. A report will be presented to the new city council in 2011.
Nevertheless, Sferrazza conceded that any decrease in plastic usage will account for 1% or less of the city’s goal to achieve a 70% diversion rate from landfill.
While the city can’t force retailers to contribute proceeds of the fees to the environment, Sferezza says the solid waste division has recommended it.
“We felt it was a positive initiative,” he said.
Where companies are investing in the environment, it appears to be a token amount of what they actually collect from selling their plastic and designer Eco-bags.
Loblaw spokesman Julija Hunter, who responded by e-mail after several calls to the company, wrote that after rolling out its plastic bag fee nationally in April 2009, Loblaw announced a donation to World Wildlife Canada of $3 million over three years (or $1 million a year), representing “partial proceeds” from plastic bag charges.
Rona spokesman Julie Siedel said some proceeds of bag sales at its 700 stores across Canada are going toward construction of a Centre for Sustainable Development in Montreal. She did not have an exact figure, however.
“We know the demand for our bags has decreased a lot ... we are not gathering a lot of money (from them),” said Siedel.
If that’s the case, why the secrecy?
Most companies contacted were decidedly guarded with respect to details on how many stores are actually charging the fee, how much is being collected and what is being done with profits not being contributed to the environment.
Shoppers Drug Mart’s Smitham could not tell me how many of the chain’s more than 1,100 stores are now charging the fee. She would only say that a portion of the proceeds is going toward the company’s Weekend to End Women’s Cancer and the rest into “retrofitting stores” with new energy management systems.
When I suggested that using the proceeds to renovate stores was not really what the City of Toronto had in mind, she said there was “no stipulation” from the city as to what should be done with the money.
Loblaw did not return repeated requests for information on how many stores in total are charging the fee (its website says it has more than 1,000 across Canada) and what is being done with the remaining proceeds.
But, by my conservative calculations, if each store is selling 1,000 plastic bags a day at a 3¢ profit, that works out to $10.7 million in profit a year – a far cry from the $1 million being plunked into the WWF annually.
Dental hygienist Bryna Abtan, a Thornhill resident, said she will only shop at her local Longo’s or Concord Foods stores, both of which do not charge for plastic bags.
“It’s nothing more than a cash grab,” Abtan bristles.
Kevin Gaudet, national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he thinks the City of Toronto bag tax contributed to the recent backlash toward the province’s eco-fees.
“People have had enough,” said Gaudet. “It’s part of the whole death by a thousand taxes.”
He thinks retailers who have embraced the bylaw are “laughing at our expense.
“It’s no shock they went along with it,” said Gaudet. “They can reap millions of dollars in profits while looking environmentally friendly.”

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