British Columbia

Victoria's plastic bag ban quashed by B.C. court

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that because Victoria's primary aim in enacting the ban was environment, it required approval by the Minister of Environment — something it failed to receive.

City can still go ahead with ban if it gets permission from provincial government

The Canadian Plastic Bag Association previously challenged the bylaw, but lost in a lower court. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The City of Victoria has lost a battle in B.C.'s court of appeal over its ban of single-use plastic bags. 

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that because Victoria's primary aim in enacting the ban was the environment, it required approval by the Minister of Environment — something it failed to receive.

"The Ministry of Environment has the ability to regulate the environment, [but] we have the ability to regulate business," argued Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps Thursday afternoon at city hall. "Waste management is very much our responsibility."

In her ruling, Madam Justice Newbury wrote that wasn't the case.

"The city did not set out to prohibit some types of checkout bags and encourage other types in order to interfere with or somehow improve business transactions," she wrote. 

"Rather, it set out to slow down and ultimately end the harm caused by plastics in waterways both local and global." 

The appeal was filed by the Canadian Plastic Bag Association, which had previously challenged the bylaw but lost in a lower court.

Newbury also wrote that "while the city's intentions in passing the bylaw were no doubt reasonable, we must give effect to the clear instructions ... requiring the minister's approval. Whatever the reason for not seeking that approval in July 2018, it will now presumably be sought."

The Ministry of the Environment said Victoria hadn't yet made a request, but didn't guarantee one would be granted if it did. 

"The ministry needs to assess all aspects of today's decision," wrote a spokesperson. 

"British Columbians are concerned about plastic waste in our environment and want action. To that end, the Province is currently looking at ways to prevent plastic waste in our environment at a province-wide level."

Why no request?

Helps said the city didn't seek approval from the minister "because our interpretation is this is very clearly within the jurisdiction of local governments. ... If this was primarily an environmental issue, we would have chosen to go to the minister." 

Helps said she found the fact that the city's bylaw has been imitated by a number of Canadian cities "very inspiring."

In Victoria, the bylaw was embraced by community members and businesses, she added. 

"I go and buy dog food at Bosley's on Yates Street and [they say] 'we couldn't get rid of our plastic bags soon enough. We love this.'"

Since the bylaw was introduced, it has stopped 17 million plastic bags from going into the landfill, she said.

Under the December 2017 bylaw, grocery stores can't offer or sell single-use plastic bags to customers and must charge at least 15 cents for paper bags and one dollar for reusable bags.

Helps said the new ruling speaks to a much larger power struggle.

"This is an important issue about the power of cities to regulate businesses in line with the value of community," she explained.

She said the city will now find another way to eliminate single-use plastic. 

"We will be reviewing the decision and looking at all of our options," she said, noting that this could include waiting until 2021 when the federal government imposes its ban on single-use plastics.

In the meantime, she advises shoppers to bring their reusable bags to the grocery store.

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

With files from Adam van der Zwan and The Canadian Press

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