What started off as a debate to get rid of an unpopular five-cent fee for a plastic bag has ended up with the largest outright ban on plastic bags in North America.

On Wednesday, some members of Toronto city council — urged on by Mayor Rob Ford — set out to get rid of the nickel fee charged by retailers for every plastic bag. 

Ford succeeded in getting that fee scrapped. But by the end of the day, council also approved a motion to prohibit retailers from giving out, or even selling, any plastic shopping bags.

The ban, which takes effect on Jan. 1, includes "those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photodegradable or similar."

It was a motion that came out of the blue from Coun. David Shiner, who is part of Ford's executive team.

Other cities have banned plastic bags

Shiner said in an interview with CBC News on Thursday morning that the idea of the outright ban came to him in the midst of the debate over the five-cent fee.

"I listened to the emails that were coming in — and I read them.  I listened to the debate from my colleagues and it started to make sense. So many other jurisdictions don't permit these bags to be used and there are so many other alternatives," said Shiner.

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"What was brought up during the debate is the fact that many cities in North America — cities in Canada, in the United States — have said, no more [plastic] bags. And it works."

Seattle, San Francisco and Fort McMurray. Alta., all have similar bans in place. Toronto is by far the largest municipality to take such a step.

The north Toronto councillor said he supported the mayor's idea of getting rid of what he called the "nickel tax." 

"But the bigger issue is what's happening with 250 million bags that still end up in our landfill every year. Because people think, 'Oh, I take it, I reuse it, and something will happen to it.'  But that plastic never breaks down and it stays plastic forever."

The vote was 24-20.

"The intent of the motion is to say, 'You have to do better,'" said Shiner.

Ford said later he expects the ban to face a legal challenge.

Shoppers have mixed feelings

At a grocery store in Toronto's Little Italy on Thursday morning, shoppers were caught off-guard by council's decision. 

""It's kind of shocking. I don't actually believe they'd do something like that because they've always had plastic bags and people kind of depend on them," said one woman who was doing her shopping.

But others said they felt it was time to ban the bags,

"You know, I'm all for it. I think it's great. You know all the plastic, it's just unbelievable.  People just need to adjust to it," said Fatima as she headed home with two plastic bags filled with groceries.

The votes on removing the nickel fee and imposing the ban mean that for the period between July 1, 2012, and Jan. 1, 2013, retailers can hand out plastic bags free.