Rob Ford's bid to kill the plastic bag fee backfired spectacularly Wednesday, when council hijacked the mayor's attempt to eliminate the five-cent levy and instead voted to ban the bags outright at all Toronto checkouts.
Starting January 1, 2013, stores will be prohibited from providing customers with "single-use" plastic carryout bags, including those advertised as biodegradable. The hope is that retailers will switch to providing free paper bags.
It will still be legal to sell and use other plastic carriers like garbage bags and doggy bags, as long as they're not provided or sold by retailers for carryout purposes.
Council's shock 27-17 decision was the result of a surprise motion from Councillor David Shiner, who is usually a reliable ally of the mayor and sits on his executive committee.
Like Ford, Shiner opposed the bag fee because he feels it allows companies to unfairly gouge customers every time they make a purchase. Retailers take in $5 million a year through the levy, much of which is donated to charity.
But citing environmental concerns, Shiner went a step further and proposed banning the sacks next year, outdoing a motion from Councillor Anthony Perruzza that had the support of much of council's left and called for a ban to take effect in 2014.
The new policy is more progressive than any measure taken under the David Miller administration that instituted the fee, and represents another blow to the mayor's weakening hold on council's agenda. Ford can claim a small victory however in that, in the same vote, council also decided to eliminate the bag fee on July 1 for a brief six-month window before the ban kicks in.
"It's a great victory today," Shiner told reporters. "We've gotten rid of the fee and we're getting rid of the bag. That's what we really want to do, is do the right thing for the environment and the right thing for the residents in Toronto."
Few at City Hall saw Shiner's motion coming, apparently not even to the councillor himself. At the start of Wednesday's meeting debate was expected to centre on whether to scrap the fee as Ford was advocating, or keep it and divert proceeds collected by retailers towards protecting Toronto's tree canopy.
"I didn't know I was doing this when I went into council today," Shiner admitted, saying that his colleagues' speeches convinced him it was time to do away with the plastic carriers.
Although he revealed that he gave the mayor little notice of his plan, Shiner played down any rift with Ford and said that outlawing plastic bags was just another way of eliminating the bag fee.
"The mayor didn't want people to be charged. People won't be charged this way," he said.
But the mayor was clearly displeased by council's decision, which he inadvertently opened the door to by putting the bag fee on the agenda. He predicted the city will be sued over the new policy, and lose.
"It doesn't make any sense," Ford told reporters. "You can't tell these people they can't give out plastic bags or sell plastic bags. To me it's ludicrous."
Other councillors also criticized the decision as too hasty, and derided the lack of staff reports or public consultations that normally accompany major policy decisions at City Hall. As it stands, Shiner's motion represents the entirety of the city's policy, and he lifted much of its language from a presentation on Seattle's bag ban.
"It won't see the light of day," said Councillor Norm Kelly of Toronto's ban. He recalled that a previous attempt to implement a prohibition on bags in 2008 failed because council couldn't find a way to meet the strict legal standards set out by city staff.
"Given the way we passed it today, on the fly, coming out of the blue with no staff reports, I think this will be immediately challenged and our ability to defend it... will be slim to none."
Emily Alfred of the Toronto Environmental Alliance admitted that the policy is vague, but said she was glad council is taking stand against the bags, which take decades to decompose and often end up clogging landfills and oceans.
"It sends a real signal that Toronto wants to be an environmental leader, and I think that's the important thing," Alfred said. "There's details to be worked out but ultimately this is the right direction to move."