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JORDI MORGAN: Beware overreach with plastic bag bans


A shopper loads grocery bags into a taxi at the Mumford Sobeys last year. Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald
A shopper loads grocery bags into a taxi at the Mumford Sobeys last year. Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald

Last Wednesday, the British Columbia Court of Appeal struck down Victoria’s checkout bag regulation bylaw, which was intended to prevent businesses from providing single-use plastic bags. Essentially, under B.C.’s community charter, provincial approval for the bylaw is required — and since the Victoria didn’t get it, the bylaw is invalid.

The appeal of this B.C. Supreme Court decision was launched by the Canadian Plastic Bag Association, which argues that municipalities in B.C. don’t have the authority to regulate the environment, nor the right to block a product and financially impact manufacturers.

Victoria’s mayor, Lisa Helps, says the city will be reviewing the decision and will consider all options, but she is encouraging businesses and shoppers to “stay the course” on reusable checkout bags. The city may be left with the option of a municipal-wide education program to assist consumers and businesses, but in hindsight, perhaps this is where it should have started. It would have avoided the attempted imposition of a regulatory framework, not to speak of the legal costs. Perhaps Halifax, and other Nova Scotia municipalities, could take a lesson from this.

Earlier this year, HRM council tasked staff to come up with a similar bylaw. However, staff is bound by another commitment made by council to rethink its development of new rules and regulations. The commitment is outlined in an administrative order which notes, among other things: when developing a new regulation, consider whether satisfactory outcomes can be achieved by alternative non-regulatory approaches — and whether analysis of the costs and benefits demonstrates a regulatory approach will achieve outcomes more effectively than the alternative non-regulatory approaches.

In a recent survey of Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) members, the majority favoured the elimination of single-use plastic bags — but, at the same time, unnecessary regulatory burden and red tape are a perpetual irritant for business. So what is the best way forward?

Market forces and public opinion remain powerful incentives in changing behaviour, and regulation is not always the most effective tool. It’s becoming evident public opinion is moving toward a reduction of film plastic at the source, and manufacturers and retailers are responding to consumer demand. This is already happening without regulation.

Flat-out bans are blunt instruments and require policing and compliance checks. This takes up resources on an ongoing basis and inflicts further administration costs on municipalities. HRM and other municipalities should consider spending public money more effectively, and support consumers and businesses using alternative non-regulatory approaches such as education, better recycling processes and public campaigns.

The film-plastic issue is much larger than single-use shopping bags. Policy-makers should be looking at more comprehensive solutions rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all ban, dusting off their hands and calling it a day. It may also avoid a costly day in court.

Jordi Morgan is vice-president, Atlantic, for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB)

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