Varcoe: Businesses not so ecstatic with council’s single-use plan

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A call to five separate business groups this week found varying issues and degrees of concern with council’s strategy

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Getting consensus can be a tricky thing when it comes to new government policies, such as a city proposal that would see Calgarians face fees when they need new shopping bags at the mall, corner shop or grocery store.

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A council committee this week backed a proposed levy that would mandate businesses to charge shoppers 15 cents for each paper bag they require, or $1 for a new reusable bag.

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If passed by city council, these mandatory fees could begin in 2024 and then increase the following year.

The idea is to encourage consumers to bring their own bags to the store, reuse existing ones, reduce waste from single-use products and slow down the mountain of garbage heading into local landfills, which is laudable.

A motion over the proposed plan was backed by the Community Development Committee on Tuesday and is headed for council on Oct. 4.

It seems like a slam dunk.

Ottawa already has federal regulations coming into place to prohibit single-use plastic items, including checkout bags and cutlery, food serviceware (such as takeout containers and plates), stir sticks, straws and aluminum can ring carriers.

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Calgary’s bylaw would instead focus on cutting waste from single-use items regardless of their composition, “even if they are recyclable or compostable,” states a document from city administration.

Customers would also have to request single-use food accessories (including spoons, napkins or straws) made from any material, instead of simply being handed out to all consumers.

“We have used input from Calgarians to develop, shape and refine our approach,” states a report from city administration.

And with 6.4 million plastic forks, knives and spoons already tossed away in Calgary each week— along with 3.5 million plastic bags — who could argue against such a strategy?

“Feedback shows that businesses are in support of the bylaws proposed by the city,” states a city document.

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“They agree it will build on the measures already being taken by the business community, creates a level playing field…

“There was no opposition to the measures, though some local businesses expressed concerns regarding customer reactions.”

Yet, some don’t think it’s a plan of perfection.

In fact, a call to five separate business groups this week found varying issues and degrees of concern with the strategy.

“The policy still has a number of pretty rough edges that still need to be smoothed out before it’s totally ready for prime time,” said Scott Crockatt of the Business Council of Alberta, which represents some of the largest employers in the province.

“Like a knock in your engine or a pop in your knees, any time governments talk about setting prices, it’s usually not a good sign of things to come.”

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Hmm, let’s try a group that represents many smaller companies, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

“Now is not the time for any government to increase fees on businesses or consumers. We are in an inflationary period,” said Annie Dormuth of the CFIB.

What about industry groups representing businesses on the front line, such as restaurants and retailers?

“Our concern is (the) layering of regulations for operators,” said John Graham of the Retail Council of Canada.

“We have a federal plastics reduction strategy. We have some provinces that have their own provincial regulations and then we’ve got dozens and dozens of municipalities across Canada with their own nuanced bylaws.”

Restaurants Canada also has issues with Calgary’s proposal, noting the strategy seems to have been drafted with retailers in mind, not food service companies.

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Imposing a paper bag fee of 15 cents or $1 for a reusable shopping bag to cart around $100 worth of groceries is a relatively small piece of a bigger bill, but it’s a much larger percentage on a $1.50 muffin, the group told councillors in an e-mail this week.

“A couple of pieces kind of stood out as a red flag. These are issues that we had previously discussed with the city,” said Jennifer Henshaw of Restaurants Canada.

“There are certain elements of it that they have got right … but I would say that there’s some feedback from the restaurant sector that has been left out.”

Now, this isn’t to say that businesses oppose the strategy; there are parts they support.

They point out many companies are already moving aggressively to reduce waste, by shifting away from providing single-use plastic items, including bags, well before the federal laws kick in. Some already charge a fee for bags.

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According to the city, the proposed bylaw would allow businesses to keep revenue collected from the mandatory levy on bags.

There is no recommendation to impose a fee on disposable coffee cups, which other cities have embraced; Henshaw said public education is the right way to go on that front.

It seems clear that Calgarians want to see overall waste reduced.

The city report noted a recent survey found 87 per cent of Calgarians say they are taking their own shopping bag to the grocery store always or most of the time already. It also pointed out 91 per cent of those surveyed say the city should be involved in single-item reduction.

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce likes the idea of having consumers ask for items such as forks, straws and napkins, instead of it being handed to all consumers and often scrapped.

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That proposal should save them money.

“Some businesses in our community are quite supportive of governments bringing in these pieces of legislation,” said Ruhee Ismail-Teja, the chamber’s director of policy.

“But we also have other business community members that believe it should be the businesses’ prerogative to decide what they want. So the business community does remain quite mixed.”

That much is clear. Businesses still have some concerns that need to be addressed.

And Coun. Jennifer Wyness, one of two councillors who voted against the proposed plan on Tuesday, worries about making such changes without well-defined measurements that show the strategy is making a positive difference.

“I want those metrics to make sure that it’s not just a headline of, ‘Let’s pat ourselves on the back and do a victory lap,’” she said in an interview.

“This file needs more work.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

[email protected]

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