Vancouver's new takeout packaging fees have an outsized impact on homeless people, charity says

·3 min read
The Vancouver Odd Fellows charity is handing out quarters to the homeless community members they serve, after Vancouver introduced an eco-fee on single-use packaging which restaurants such as McDonalds have passed onto the customer. (Vancouver Odd Fellows/Twitter - image credit)
The Vancouver Odd Fellows charity is handing out quarters to the homeless community members they serve, after Vancouver introduced an eco-fee on single-use packaging which restaurants such as McDonalds have passed onto the customer. (Vancouver Odd Fellows/Twitter - image credit)

A charity serving homeless people in Vancouver says its guests are feeling the sting of new disposable packaging fees in the city.

This month, the city brought in new minimum fees on disposable bags and cups. The charge is intended to cut down on waste and single-use packaging.

Businesses must collect a 15 cent fee for paper bags, and 25 cents for cups, fees which are not turned over to the city but are meant to act as a disincentive.

But for one charity providing emergency warming this winter, the McDonald's meal vouchers they give out turned into more of a barrier for those in need.

"We partnered with a local McDonald's restaurant owner a block away to sell us breakfast meal coupons at cost, and allow the homeless to come and stay there and eat breakfast; they get to stay warm a little longer," said Walter Wells, a volunteer with the Vancouver Odd Fellows.

"Last week, they were coming in and they were all told they had to pay $0.25 to get their meal. But for a lot of homeless people, it's not the money so much, but that they don't have a quarter on them."

Jenn Blommaert/Vancouver Odd Fellows
Jenn Blommaert/Vancouver Odd Fellows

A spokesperson for McDonald's Canada said the fees aren't set by the restaurants but by the city, at a minimum of $0.15 for paper bags and $0.25 for every disposable cup distributed.

"This is set by the City of Vancouver," the company said in a statement. "All restaurants are required to charge the above noted fee for cups — this includes when free meal vouchers are redeemed."

The good news, Wells says, is the local McDonald's franchise owner near his organization's hall at Granville and Broadway has agreed to absorb the fees on his charity's vouchers.

In the meantime, the Odd Fellows have brought in rolls of quarters to give out coins to their guests for breakfast. The City of Vancouver now says it will reimburse the charity those costs, and said it has worked closely with charities as it developed the new waste-reduction bylaw.

David P. Ball/CBC
David P. Ball/CBC

"It's to address the 82 million disposable cups thrown away in Vancouver each year ... it's aimed at reducing this waste," explained Monica Kosmak, senior project manager of the city's single-use item reduction strategy. "One of our top priorities has been to mitigate the impacts of the cup fee on people experiencing homelessness and income inequality."

She said there are provisions to ensure homeless charities don't have to charge the fees. And she said the Fairview Warming Centre, located at the Odd Fellows lodge, is independent of the city's shelter operators.

"This is a new bylaw. This is the first week into it," she said. "As new issues arise, we'll work quickly to address them and ensure the needs of the community are met."

The fees come in addition to a new charge on plastic shopping bags, which has an additional fee and came into effect this year as well.

Wells said the city and restaurant's moves only solve the issue for his own organization. For other homeless and underhoused Vancouverites, many are are still facing a barrier to getting food and a warm place from the cold.

"All round, it's a real help," he said. "I guess it was an unforeseen consequence of a new government policy, and I understand what they're trying to do.

"It's not an insignificant fee for these people. It's an added cost that would hurt them. It is an issue that some other companies could improve on."

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