Attempt to kill mandatory $0.25 single-use cup fee fails in Vancouver City Council

Mar 4 2022, 5:07 am

A proposed amendment to abolish the City of Vancouver’s newly implemented policy of requiring businesses to charge a $0.25 fee on the distribution of single-use cups failed to pass.

Vancouver City Council was deliberating on Wednesday various minor changes recommended by city staff to the mandatory single-use cup fee, after hearing mixed reviews from the general public and small businesses during the hours-long public speakers segment of the meeting.

During the deliberations, a proposed amendment to the policy changes put forward by independent city councillor Rebecca Bligh would have directed city staff to end the fee, as well as any associated bylaw amendments associated with single-use beverage cups.

“It’s clear the bylaw amendments have not been as effective as one had hoped in reducing the use of single-use cups, and we’ve even heard from some speakers that it’s challenging to get businesses onboard with investing in these reusable cup share programs,” said Bligh during the meeting, adding that city staff’s recommended changes have not sufficiently addressed the challenges of the fee.

“Fees and taxes do not inspire innovation. They don’t inspire programming change, they don’t inspire engaging the consumer to get on the same side, it divides people, and in this particular circumstance, unnecessarily. Cup share reusable programs are already well underway. We even have small businesses who said this is not a good thing.”

City council voted 7-4 against the amendment to kill the mandatory cup fee. Here is how they voted:

  • YES (terminate the fee):
    • Melissa De Genova, NPA councillor
    • Lisa Dominato, independent councillor
    • Rebecca Bligh, independent councillor
    • Sarah Kirby-Yung, independent councillor
  • NO (keep the fee):
    • Kennedy Stewart, independent mayor
    • Adriane Carr, Green Party councillor
    • Pete Fry, Green Party councillor
    • Jean Swanson, COPE councillor
    • Colleen Hardwick, independent councillor
    • Michael Wiebe, Green Party councillor
    • Christine Boyle, OneCity councillor

“Small businesses have put thousands of dollars in adjusting to our new regulations, and any major change would require them to spend thousands more, either reversing or changing. We can’t flip flop, we need to stay the course with minor adjustments if needed,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who was the only council member who provided feedback on the amendment, before voting against it.

Under the city’s policy, businesses keep all cup fee revenues collected, which is intended to go towards covering the cost of investing in alternative reusable options, but there is no legal guarantee for the revenue to be used this way.

As it turns out, the municipal government does not have jurisdictional powers to collect the cup fee revenue for its own budget gains, nor can it dictate to businesses how they are to use their cup fee revenue.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got national and multinational chains collecting millions of dollars with zero accountability, right out of the pockets of people who live in our city. We’re not saying don’t do it, let’s just do it a different way. If council can’t get around that kind of common sense, I think it’s disappointing and the residents of Vancouver, many don’t even know these discussions are happening, are relying on us to use better judgement,” continued Bligh.

“We have a tough job to do as city council, and that’s really striking a balance and recognizing our limitations. That means we sometimes have to make some tough calls and acknowledge when something isn’t working. This local level stepped out in front of our provincial and federal partners on this matter, and that just added to the unaffordability of our city.”

Bligh asserts forthcoming provincial and federal government policies on discouraging single-use items will establish much more effective strategies, which will supersede the actions of any municipal government.

NPA city councillor Melissa De Genova commented that the city would see better uptake from the general public if it used “carrots instead of sticks.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to move forward with green initiatives, but where is this money going? Is it going to green initiatives? No, it’s not. People are just paying more in many instances,” said De Genova.

Echoing Bligh’s rationale, De Genova said “the fact that this is not regional and that we’re going at it alone is causing much confusion, and I don’t want to add to the unaffordability, especially if we’re not reducing single-use cups.”

The second part of Bligh’s amendment also failed to pass, which would have directed city staff to encourage businesses to promote and accept reusable cups from customers, instead of city staff’s recommendation of requiring businesses to accept reusable cups.

Independent city councillors Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung emphasized on the importance of doubling down on education, and recognized that businesses are already going down a more sustainable path such as developing reusables, but may not be ready for the transition at the moment considering the steep rising costs from inflation, and ongoing pandemic economic challenges and health safety concerns.

“We went down a path, we rolled out implementation of this initiative, and there’s a lot of gaps still,” said Dominato.

City council ended the discussion by approving various recommendations proposed by city staff that tweak and add to the two-month-old policy. City staff drafted the various recommendations after being first directed by city council in late January to amend the policies, when it heard growing public concerns on unintended impacts, especially on low-income individuals.

The approved changes include exempting all free drinks from the mandatory fee, including free drink vouchers, monetary gift vouchers, free drinking water, and points or rewards programs. City staff will now also attempt to expand and raise awareness of cup exchange programs for low-income individuals and organizations that work with such individuals.

As well, city council has also approved, in principle, a requirement that businesses must accept reusable cups by July 1, 2022. City staff will report back to city council in 2023 with a strategy to require businesses to provide reusable cups for drinks ordered to-stay and to offer a reusable cup-share program for drinks ordered to-go. De Genova argued such a policy could be cost prohibitive for small businesses.

Since the mandatory cup fee went into effect on January 1, 2022, many businesses have refused to handle reusable cups from their customers for reasons that include health safety, given the spike in coronavirus cases at the time, and logistical challenges — especially with major staffing challenges.

At the start of the year, the city also implemented the policies of banning plastic shopping bags, and mandating minimum fees of $0.15 for a paper shopping bag and $1.00 for a new reusable shopping bag.

In exchange for annual business license renewals, businesses are required to track and report statistics on the number of single-use items they distribute to their customers.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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