For cities and towns trying to cut out plastic, here’s what’s worked and what hasn’t

Across Canada, communities are trying out single-use plastic bans, fees and other policies to reduce plastic pollution. 

Global plastic consumption has quadrupled in the past 30 years, and only nine per cent is being recycled, the OECD reports. That’s the case even in Canada. The rest is landfilled, littered or incinerated — and a federal move to ban six kinds of single-use plastic items is facing a legal setback.

Emily Robinson, a researcher at the University of Guelph who studies sustainability in food service operations, says recycling isn’t enough to deal with the scale of the problem, and we need to “turn off the tap.”

Among local governments that have been trying to reduce plastic use, some, such as Montreal and Banff, have been ambitious and seem successful so far. But others, like Calgary and Vancouver, have seen setbacks, even repealing some policies. Here’s a closer look at the range of strategies, what’s working and what’s not.

Municipal bans on single-use plastic

Individual cities and towns were behind the earliest efforts to tackle single-use plastics. On April 2, 2007, Leaf Rapids, Man., then a town of 540 people, became the first municipality in North America to ban plastic bags. Many others across the continent have since followed.

Municipal governments are typically responsible for dealing with local waste and recycling and directly feel the impact in their operations and budgets, so it’s no surprise that most single-use plastics regulations in Canada are local, and many use more varied strategies than federal and provincial rules.

WATCH | More on Montreal’s single-use plastics ban: 

Montreal’s single-use plastic ban explained

1 year ago

Duration 1:44

A new Montreal bylaw banning certain single-use plastic items in food establishments comes into force on March 28.

Montreal banned a wide range of single-use plastics in March 2023. The city had been providing more public trash cans than ever, but plastic use kept increasing, said Marie-Andrée Mauger, Verdun borough councillor and member of the executive committee for the ecological transition and the environment, at the time. 

The city’s rules ban all plastics for cups, stir sticks, straws and on-site consumption utensils; plastic utensils on delivery and takeout; and polystyrene in plates, containers, trays and lids everywhere, with a few exceptions. A year after implementation, the city told Global News it had a 92 per cent compliance rate, and less than 40 tickets had been issued.

By-request policies, accepting reusables

Banff, Alta., implemented some ambitious policies that go beyond just bans. Starting last July, it introduced an ask-first/by-request policy. That means restaurants will only give ketchup packages, straws and cutlery if they ask the customer first, or if they’re requested. B.C. and Toronto have similar policies.

Customers can also have their takeout order served in their own reusable containers. Toronto has a similar policy for reusable cups and bags.

WATCH | In Regina, a divide over paper or plastic straws: 

Paper or plastic straws? Public as divided as politicians

4 days ago

Duration 0:59

People at a Regina mall food court are divided in the paper or plastic straw debate. A Saskatchewan Conservative MP is defending plastic straws, suggesting paper straws are just as bad or worse for people’s health and the environment.

The second phase of Banff’s bylaw, which went into effect in January, requires restaurants, bars and cafes to serve dine-in customers with reusable dishware. In addition, new restaurants need to have at least 10 seats, as well as dishwashers and reusable dinnerware, to get licensed to operate.

That comes with extra costs for businesses, acknowledges Karli Fleury, director of workforce and destination initiatives with the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association — especially for those that weren’t set up for dishwashing or can’t easily serve their items in commonly used dishware, such as slushy drinks or popcorn. She said the city does offer some rebates for installing dishwashers, and has taken a very collaborative approach: “They’ve been working with businesses one-on-one [and] have given exemptions for a period of time to allow them to get to where they need to be, regardless of what their challenge is.”

A woman shows a reusable cup.
Karli Fleury of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association shows a reusable cup in this Zoom screenshot. (Emily Chung/CBC)

But, like Montreal, those living in Banff were experiencing waste issues first-hand and saw the need for change. 

“Being in a very small area where we see a lot of people, especially in the summertime, unfortunately seeing garbage and waste is part of that,” Fleury said. “I think living and operating in a national park comes with additional responsibilities.

“We see nature all around us in every aspect of our life. And I think that inspires the values of the people who live here, but also of the businesses that operate here.”

The next target: single-use coffee cups. A waste audit by the Recycling Council of Alberta found 1,000 such cups a day were being thrown out in two busy downtown blocks. 

Three single-use coffee cups are shown next to three reusable cups.
Reusable and single-use coffee cups are shown side by side at Suddenly Sally, a restaurant in Banff, Alta. (Submitted by Banff Borrows/Banff & Lake Louise Tourism)

“It’s not even the whole town,” Fleury said.

This time, the approach isn’t a bylaw, but a new pilot program, fully launched this month, allowing tourists to borrow reusable metal cups at 15 cafes and hotels around town with a deposit. The empty, but unwashed, cups can be returned to any participating location within 30 days.

Single-use plastic rules repealed in Calgary, Vancouver

Not all single-use plastic policies have been successful. Calgary council voted in January to begin repealing its ask first/by request bylaw for single-use items and bag fees, two weeks after they went into effect. Both council and administration acknowledged that there had been significant public pushback. However, the bylaw remains in effect until a public hearing today.

Vancouver council voted to repeal a 25-cent single-use cup fee last year, after Coun. Rebecca Blight argued it didn’t reduce their use.

WATCH | The difficulties of ending plastic pollution: 

Why it’s so hard to end plastic pollution

13 days ago

Duration 7:07

Thousands of delegates are in Ottawa trying to hammer out an historic treaty to end plastic pollution, but the road to get there is littered with hurdles. CBC’s Susan Ormiston examines why it’s so hard to curb the problem and what it will take for the world to agree on a plan.

Johnny Rodgers, chair of Surfrider Vancouver, a non-profit that fights plastic pollution and protects coastlines, agreed. “I think a lot of different cities and municipalities are figuring out what works,” he said. “The current [Vancouver] government is willing to say, ‘This isn’t working as it’s defined. Let’s try and find some other solutions.'”

He added that different solutions may work in different communities. 

In Vancouver, exemptions had to be added to the cup bylaw even before it was repealed, as the fee meant homeless people couldn’t get a free cup of water.

What works and what doesn’t?

Robinson, the UGuelph researcher, said she thinks reward systems, like discounts for bringing your own mug, are better than penalty systems, such as fees on disposables, although one 2018 study found that between the two, fees were more effective. 

Robinson said single-use alternatives to plastic come with some of the same problems, since they require resources to make and eventually dispose of. 

Reusable bags are seen in rows.
Reusable bags are seen at a Sobeys in Nova Scotia. (Sobeys Regent St/Facebook)

She added that phasing out single-use plastics tends to be most successful where there’s support for reuse systems, such as grants for startups that build such systems — something she said Toronto is doing.

She thinks ultimately, the solution is for everyone — businesses, governments and the public —  to work together. 

“And, I think, stop thinking so much about, ‘What’s the most convenient, cheapest option for me?’ And more so thinking, ‘What is the best long-term option for us as a community, as a people?'”


Posted in CBC