Plastic offensive: Several B.C. municipalities eager for bag bans as province conducts review

As 2020 begins, at least 20 B.C. municipalities have either put in place a bylaw that prohibits plastic bags at check-outs, or are drafting legislation in consultation with residents about how to come up with one. 

In the meantime, the province is reviewing single-use plastics to come up with a potential provincewide ban, while the plastics industry remains steadfast that the bags are being unfairly targeted.

On June 8, 2019 Tofino and Uclulet prohibited businesses from giving out conventional plastic bags and restaurants providing plastic straws. Instead customers can pay a fee for a paper bag or, better yet, bring their own reusable bags.

The bans are meant to reduce the number of bags ending up in landfills or, worse, in the ocean. Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said the ban has been good for her community.

"People want to effect change in the environment and the way we use things," she said.

By July, several other municipalities joined Tofino and Ucluelet with similarly structured bylaws based on one in Victoria that was passed in 2018. They included Courtenay, Salmon Arm, Qualicum Beach, and Cumberland.

But the movement suffered a blow on July 10 when the Court of Appeal for British Columbia struck down Victoria's bag bylaw, which struggled to get going due to court challenges

The court ruled that the implementation of a ban was provincial jurisdiction.

Victoria is seeking to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court of Canada, but all the legal action has created a chill for other municipalities that had either drafted a similar bylaw or were consulting with residents about how to structure one.

They include Chilliwack, Colwood, Port Moody, Richmond, Rossland, Esquimalt, North Vancouver, Saanich, Sooke, Kamloops, and Nanaimo.

Many of the municipalities are looking to the province for leadership on the issue. For two months ending in September it collected feedback about single-use plastics as part of a provincewide review.

Provincial ban coming?

It's called the CleanBC Plastics Action Plan and it will include several ways to reduce plastic pollution, including bans, said a ministry official. Results from the outreach are expected sometime this winter.

In the meantime, the federal government has committed to banning single-use plastic items as early as 2021.

The plastics industry says the focus on banning plastic bags is misguided and ignores that plastic bags are often reused, can be recycled, and use less energy and water to make than something like a cotton bag.

Craig Foster, speaks for the Canadian Plastics Industry Association from B.C. It represents 300 companies and around 80,000 workers.

He says a Danish study from 2018 and a Quebec one from 2017 show the significant number of times reusable bags would have to be used in order to bring their environmental or climate impacts in line with plastic bags.

'Not a win'

"We're not only changing from recyclable to non-recyclable, we're changing from domestic production to imports," Foster said about alternatives to plastic bags. "It doesn't matter how you look at this thing … there is not a win for us here at all."

As for the New Year, Gibsons appears to be the only municipality in B.C. willing to push through a bag ban. Its chief administrative officer says councillors are still working out the details, but implementation is planned for March.

The City of Vancouver implemented a ban on polystyrene foam containers on Jan. 1, but its plastic bag ban, which it says will withstand legal challenge because it is governed by a different charter than Victoria, won't come into effect until 2021.