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British Columbia B.C. municipalities intent on banning single-use plastic bags asking province to take decisive action

Some B.C. municipalities intent on banning single-use plastic bags are asking the province to take decisive action following a recent court ruling that concluded such a ban is out of a city’s jurisdiction.

The City of Rossland on Monday adopted a bylaw to prohibit businesses from giving customers plastic bags, four days after the B.C. Court of Appeal struck down a similar bylaw in Victoria.

Rossland Mayor Kathy Moore said council would be writing to Minister of Environment George Heyman to inform him of her city’s actions and to ask that the province move on the issue as well.

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“If the province doesn’t want to do something provincewide, then give municipalities the power to respond to the needs in their own communities,” Ms. Moore said on Tuesday. “But ideally, it makes the most sense for this to be federal and provincial legislation so it is uniform throughout the province.”

Businesses in Rossland can now offer bags only if customers have first been asked if they need one, and the bags must be either paper or reusable.

The Canadian Plastic Bag Association sued the City of Victoria after council voted to ban plastic bags. Since last July, businesses in the capital city have been prohibited from offering or selling disposable plastic bags and have been required to charge customers for paper and reusable bags.

The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled last week that such a ban is primarily environmental legislation – rather than business legislation, as the City of Victoria had argued – and that enacting a bylaw relating to environmental protection requires the approval of the Minister of Environment.

Mr. Heyman could not be reached for an interview but his ministry said that it is reviewing the decision and that no municipalities to date have requested a sign-off from the province.

Ottawa recently pledged to ban a range of everyday plastics, including single-use bags, by as early as 2021. However, the coming federal election could change that plan.

The mayor of Tofino, Josie Osborne, on June 13, 2019.

Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said her community will continue to enforce its ban on plastic straws and bags that came into effect last month.

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She said the province could undertake consultations and draft legislation that works for most of B.C.'s 162 municipalities or it could approve bans in different places on a piecemeal basis, which would be daunting.

“And from the consumer’s point of view, it’s kind of confusing to go from municipality to municipality and see different rules, different costs and different alternatives,” Ms. Osbourne said.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said the Court of Appeal ruling threw a wrench into his community’s plans and that he has introduced a resolution at the Union of B.C. Municipalities asking for the province to adopt a B.C.-wide single-use item reduction strategy.

Richmond was set to begin consultation and education campaigns in advance of a Jan. 1, 2020, ban on plastic bags, polystyrene foam products and straws, but will now first seek ministerial approval.

“Had we passed this a month ago, we probably would have just let it go and ride it out,” Mr. Brodie said. “But given the fact that we know about the Court of Appeal decision … I’d be rather uneasy about just saying we’re going to go ahead without anything further.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said that her city is taking time to consider its next steps and that she appreciates the province is doing the same.

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“What’s at stake is not just plastic bags and whether they should be banned or not,” she said. “What’s at stake is: What is the authority of local government in the 21st century to regulate businesses in response to the values of our communities? To me, that is the most important conversation that needs to be had.”

Ms. Helps said the city will be seeking legal advice in the coming weeks and options may include appealing the decision to the Minister of Environment or applying for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

A recent poll by Nanos Research found that 56 per cent of Canadians support a total ban on single-use plastics, while 25 per cent somewhat support a ban. British Columbians are most likely to support the ban of all provinces, with 65 of respondents saying they are in favour.

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