Efforts to ban single-use plastic bags in Saanich have hit a snag after Saanich council defeated a recommendation that asked staff to seek legal advice on the issue.
Council Monday voted 5-4 against a recommendation to “obtain legal advice on banning single use plastic bags and setting minimum pricing for single use plastic bags.”
Mayor Richard Atwell, Couns. Karen Harper, Fred Haynes, Colin Plant and Leif Wergeland voted against the recommendation from the planning, transportation, and economic development advisory committee. Couns. Susan Brice, Judy Brownoff, Dean Murdock and Vicki Sanders supported the recommendation.
Council’s decision came just days after an organization representing the plastic bag industry launched a petition against the City of Victoria that looks to overturn that municipality’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags.
The Canadian Plastic Bag Association (CPBA) claims the municipality lacks the authority to pass such a ban or to impose minimum fees for paper or reusable bags. The CPBA claims the move will “significantly impact” its members who manufacture and supply bags for the Victoria market.
Atwell said it would be a waste of staff resources to seek an internal legal opinion before the case against the Victoria bylaw had played out, a point Haynes echoed. Saanich has a fiduciary duty, he said, stressing that the question of whether Saanich should single ban single-use bags is a different question. Harper agreed. It would not be a good use of staff time, she said. It does not make sense to seek a legal opinion now, when the final legal opinion will not be available until a court has ruled on the challenge.
Supporters of the recommendation, however, expressed fears Saanich could lose momentum by delaying. Saanich will need an internal legal opinion on way or another, said Brownoff. Victoria, she said, is moving ahead with its ban, notwithstanding the court challenge. Brice said Saanich has a chance to create a “groundswell” in favour of the ban by “pushing it as close as possible to the line without green-lighting it.” Sanders, meanwhile, said parts of the industry have already accepted the new direction.
Without making a prediction, Murdock said the case will come down to the question whether Victoria has the authority. “I suspect it is going to come down to the rationale they provided in presenting the regulation. Environment is a funny thing. It seems like all levels of government do in fact have the authority. It just depends on the rationale.”
Efforts to ban single-use plastic bags date back to early 2017 when council received a presentation from two Glenlyon Norfolk School students, who urged council to reduce and eventually eliminate plastic bags, citing a long list of harmful effects.
They include the death of sea birds, sea mammals and fish. Single-use plastic bags have also received criticism for contributing to climate change by using non-renewable hydro-carbons. Finally, scientists have linked the central chemical compound in the manufacturing of plastic bags, Bisphenol A – or BPA – with pregnancy problems, prostrate problems and behaviour problems in children.
Formal efforts started to take shape in September 2017 when Brice tabled a notice of motion that led Saanich to investigate its own ban based on a model from the Capital Regional District (CRD). It would ban retailers from offering single-use plastic bags free of charge, but does not set any specific charges itself, while spelling out various exemptions.
While it is not clear how many single-use plastic bags currently circulate through Saanich, the number is likely high.
Greener Footprints, a not-for-profit society registered in British Columbia, estimates that Canadians use up to 15 billion bags every year, or about 17,000 bags a minute. Naturally, many will end up in local landfills.
A City of Victoria report captures this problematic issue. “The volume of single-use plastic bags entering the waste stream and escaping collection systems is a growing concern for cities, and should be addressed by improved waste management schemes and more sustainable consumer behaviour,” said Fraser Work, director of engineering and public works.
Council’s decision comes against the backdrop of local communities heading into different directions on the issue of single-use plastic bags.
While Victoria has moved forward with banning single plastic bags, Oak Bay has taken a wait-and-see approach, a stand Esquimalt recently joined.
Outside the Greater Victoria region, Nanaimo recently voted to ban plastic bags, as did Montreal.
But these efforts have also generated opposition from the public and industry, which appears to have won a temporary rear-guard victory.