It seems the only issue with the five-cent bag fee is that it’s annoying. But being annoying is exactly why it works.
Who are these people who are being crushed under the financial burden of paying five cents for each plastic bag? Really? It’s a nickel. I mean, I don’t want to be all ostentatiously boastful about my own affluence, but I’m pretty sure there’s enough coin accumulated on my bedside table to buy a round of bags for the house the next time I’m at No Frills. I appreciate that not everyone is rolling in cash, but if you panhandle up a toonie you could wallpaper a bungalow with plastic bags. As an experiment, let me spend a full minute brainstorming a list of things you can buy with a nickel:
1). Plastic bag.
2). Five pennies. (Limited time offer.)
I was going to add “book of matches” to that list, but I’ve recently been paying a dime for matches at my local convenience store, so the list stops at two items. Despite the rhetoric of Mayor Rob Ford about all the millions of dollars retailers are making by getting a nickel every time someone wants a bag—a bag the retailer bought and provides, incidentally—I’m doubtful that it’s even financially sensible for them to expend the cashier time and resources to collect it. (As an approximation of the time value of a nickel, consider that it takes the average Canadian about 10 seconds of work to earn five cents.)
So let’s just set aside any kind of argument that the five-cent bag fee mandated by the City of Toronto imposes any kind of financial burden on anyone. (Mayoral brother Doug Ford might be shocked to see the math all worked out, since on the weekend he estimated that the fee for 100 bags would be $500, which overestimates the actual cost by 10,000%.) Still, the mayor is convinced that the fee is enraging people across the city and he’s hell-bent on eliminating it.
Is it because he and his supporters are anti-tax in general? Well, the bag fee is not a tax—and it’s worth pointing that out since the mayor and his brother and the Toronto Sun keep calling it a tax. A tax is a fee that the government collects to help fund its spending program. The government does not collect any money at all from the bag fee. Councillor Michelle Berardinetti would like retailers to start paying the fees collected as a voluntary donation to the city, which would make it a form of revenue, at least. But it currently does not provide any money to the city at all. And, in fact, the city does not have the power to impose sales taxes, so it cannot convert this money easily into a form of tax. And even if it did have the authority to tax bags, it would need to set up a whole collection and enforcement mechanism that would almost certainly exceed the revenue collected. Because we’re talking about nickels.
I think the reason people resent the bag fee so much is that it forces them to think about something they do not want to think about. “Do I need a bag?” They know, as we all do by now, that these little things are bad for the environment in many ways—they’re made of oil, they clog up landfills if they’re thrown out, they use up a whackload of energy if they’re recycled, they kill wildlife and produce unsightly litter if they get loose, as they historically and iconically do—and so the fee asks them to think for a split second whether they want those bags and if so, how many they want. The tiny, inconsequential fee forces both the retailer and the customer to spend a few seconds discussing the issue of bags.
And that’s kind of annoying, since most of us would prefer never to be bothered thinking about the ways in which small conveniences have negative consequences. When we drive out to the corner store to buy something because we’re just, you know, too tired and lazy after a long day to walk, the last thing we want is some sanctimonious prick reminding us that driving cars everywhere is not only wrecking our city but bringing on global apocalypse. And when we’ve just bought a week’s worth of groceries that cost more than we thought they would and we’ve been standing in line for 20 minutes to pay for them and now we have to fight traffic to get home in time to feed the cranky kids, the last thing we need is for some cashier to raise the possibility that conveniently carrying those groceries 20 feet to the trunk in a few plastic bags makes us bad people, somehow. “How many bags would you like?” they ask. And we have to consider the question.
As it turns out, of course, that this has been effective, reducing the number of plastic bags used in Toronto by 53 per cent since it was introduced. Because when people have to think about it at all, when it costs them even a few seconds’s worth of income, they realize they can do without so many. When asked, they’d prefer to do right by the planet. But if you don’t ask, they don’t think about it.
Before the bag fee, customers didn’t even always have much opportunity to think about it. I remember clearly, because I was writing about plastic bags at the time, that the convenience-store clerk near my house put a single bag of gum I bought into a bag for me, without asking. My wife and I had an entire cupboard filled to overflowing with plastic bags that we had no use for, and the accidental collection kept getting larger.
We still often use plastic bags. Like most people, I suspect, when I have more than one or two things to carry home or out to the car, I splurge on a bag to carry them in. Five cents, no big deal. But when I just have one or two things that are just as easily carried in my hands, I say “no” to the bags and save another shiny coin for my bedside table. Sometimes I remember to cart some of the reusable bags we keep in the trunk into the store, in which case I use them. Really, in my experience, this is no big deal either way. But it does force the one thing it’s supposed to force: a moment’s thought. And that thought leads to action. Which has positive effects for all of society.
So the bag fee is annoying. It’s designed to be—it works for its intended purpose specifically because it’s annoying. Whatever other shape this debate takes, it seems to me, that’s what we’re arguing about.
One final thought: Much of the hope for halting climate change, according to many experts, hinges on people changing their behaviour in order to be less destructive to the environment. Some people do so because it makes them feel good, and maybe provides them some status bump in their own eyes—they’ll pay extra for a hybrid, make a big show of riding their bike. or make an effort to dress their baby in cloth diapers or whatever. But the evidence is that that kind of motivation doesn’t exist for most people. So the challenge for governments is to find ways to get us to voluntarily alter our behaviour without destroying our quality of life. A nickel charge for a plastic bag is really a very tiny way to do just that, and an almost painless one. And, it turns out, an effective one. If that proves too annoying to bear, then what hope do we have of undertaking the even larger changes needed to really address climate change?