The looming debate about ending the 5¢ fee for plastic bags - inspired by recent Rob Ford ruminations - will waste almost as much energy as the fossil-fuel-based bags themselves.
No matter what city council decides, the war on plastic bags has barely begun.
From a global perspective, Toronto's decision in 2009 to introduce a tiny fee was more a truce than a war, so any end to the program only ends that truce.
The original move under David Miller started a new discussion by requiring a nominal payment for the convenience offered by plastic throwaways, a fee well below that set in Ireland or Los Angeles County (about 25¢) and a lot less strict than the developing international norm of an outright ban. Bangladesh, China, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa are among some 20 countries where a ban is the law.
The European Union will likely follow suit this fall at the behest of the EU's environmental commissioner, Janez Potocnik, who blames the bags for "suffocating the environment." The Mediterranean is littered with 250 billion plastic remnants that can kill sea creatures.
In any country bordered by an ocean, the issue is keeping plastic out of the wilds, not just out of landfill. Plastic waste is second only to cigarette butts on ocean beaches, and more than 250 species of sea creatures, including giant sperm whales, die when they accidentally swallow the indigestible plastic garbage.
Given the complexities of packaging and the inevitability of more drastic options if milder reforms don't take hold, I find Toronto's 2009 compromise worth keeping because it bought us some time to prepare follow-up moves.
In today's messy world, settling for truce, not truth can be a sign of wisdom. This style of handling tangled public policy issues corresponds to science strategies for "wicked problems," which don't lend themselves to a straightforward solutions and often have harmful unintended consequences. Experts in wicked problems usually recommend slow but steady improvements combined with open and ongoing dialogue.
There are four positives to our bag fee, which (a sign of how fast things can change) was considered bold and precedent-setting just two years ago.
First, it targets the food industry, which normally escapes the eye of enviro campaigners. Few global warming movements identify the food system as a source of a third of greenhouse gas emissions, for example. It's crucial that food come under scrutiny, because no other sector can rival the effects from production, consumption and disposal of some 20 billion meals a day.
Any number times three meals a day times 365 days a year times 7 billion people in the world will be a big number. That's why the tiniest impact from food ends up making a colossal impact. Torontonians toss 460 million retail plastic bags a year. Americans toss enough to make a plastic rope that circles the equator 776 times.
Another reason for liking the Toronto truce is that it makes a priority of reducing the problem at source, not recycling it at the end. Recycling is better than landfilling but is much more expensive for taxpayers and more polluting than avoiding the problem in the first place.
Third, at a time when fighting taxes and gravy stains is a major preoccupation, a fee on bags models a new form of tax-free and gravy-free incentives to responsible behaviour.
Though not formally acknowledged in any UN charter or national constitution, packaging freedom and shopping convenience seem to have gained acceptance as worthy of public protection on a par with free speech and freedom of religion. But a free press doesn't mean free newspapers, and free religion doesn't mean taxpayers cover the costs of preachers.
Likewise, people who exercise their freedom to express their personal values by carrying food in plastic bags should also pay the freight of their decision - and not freeload on other taxpayers or hoover gravy belonging to future generations.
The full and true cost of plastic bags comes due after the product has been used as prescribed, as it would with cigarettes if smokers paid no fees or taxes. Users off-load the bags for free only because someone else pays serious money to have them picked up off the streets and hauled to landfills, where global-warming methane emissions from food rotting inside bags and other inevitable results of plastic waste have to be offset.
So a 5¢ fee educates shoppers to balance freedom of choice with responsible decision-making by making the cost of their decision clear at the outset.
Finally, making progress with plastic bag waste has small but beautiful potential in times that often look big and bleak. In a world where half the world's food is wasted, it's immature to make a mountain out of the molehill of shopping bags, unless one small step in the right direction is matched by hundreds of others.
A plastic bag is what it is - no less and no more. A nickel is small change, and so is the nickel fee targeting one symbol of destructive wastefulness. It would be unfortunate if the debate allowed a 5¢ fee to be turned into the be-all and end-all instead of a modest first step that needs to be quickened.