PEI·Waves of Change

What P.E.I. can learn from a B.C. city's plastic bag ban

Prince Edward Island is turning to Canada's West Coast for advice as it prepares to move forward with its ban on single-use plastic bags. The Plastic Bag Reduction Act comes into effect on July 1, 2019, making P.E.I. the first Canadian province to ban checkout bags.

P.E.I. residents currently use about 30 million single-use plastic bags annually

This lobster store in Charlottetown, P.E.I., will no longer be able to use these plastic checkout bags as of July 1, 2019. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.

Prince Edward Island is turning to Canada's West Coast for advice as it prepares to move forward with its ban on single-use plastic bags.

The Plastic Bag Reduction Act comes into effect on July 1, 2019, making P.E.I. the first Canadian province to ban the bags, commonly referred to as checkout bags. 

Victoria, B.C., residents used about 17 million single-use plastic bags annually before the ban, according to the city. (CBC)

"Currently we consume, just on Prince Edward Island, about 30 million single-use bags," said John Hughes, director of special projects with the P.E.I. Environment Department.

"The goal is to simply reduce the number of single-use plastic bags that we use on the Island."

'Largely positive'

P.E.I. is following in the footsteps of the city of Victoria, B.C., which put in place a similar ban on July 1 of this year. 

Buns and Things bakery in Charlottetown goes through about 1,000 plastic bags a week for customer purchases. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

The city said before the ban took effect, Victoria residents used 17 million plastic bags annually.

"Since July first, I happily can report that it seems largely positive," said Fraser Work, the city's director of engineering and public works.

"There was a lot of discussion leading up to the bylaw, for the first half of 2018 and since then I feel like the community really did turn a corner, accepting that this was the way forward."

'Fears about the impact'

Victoria's bylaw prohibits grocery stores from offering or selling plastic bags to shoppers.

The City of Victoria may create a provision for businesses to report annually the number of paper bags and reusable bags they're selling. (CBC)

Stores can still offer paper checkout bags for a minimum charge of 15 cents per bag and reusable checkout bags for a minimum charge of $1 per bag.

Work says it was a two-year process from the time council expressed its desire to introduce a ban and included lots of public consultation.

"When we first started to discuss the issue with businesses, there were lots of questions and fears about the impact," Work said.

"The bottom line, how people might vote with their feet and go across municipal boundaries to do their shopping, how people may be frustrated and have arguments at the till."

Informing consumers is key

The city worked with partners in the business community to inform consumers before the ban took effect.

Explaining the ban to customers is crucial, says Victoria's Fraser Work. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"To make sure people were informed and educated about why we're doing this," Work said.  

"So that doesn't put the worker in the awkward position of having to implement the city's new bylaw and take the brunt of negative feedback or complaints."

City staff have been handing out information about the plastic bag ban for the last six months, but will start enforcement in this coming January, Work said.

Under the bylaw individuals can be fined between $50 and $500, while corporations can be fined $100 to $10,000 dollars.

Work said the public told them it was important to have fines for both individuals and corporations. 

"Some businesses may only have one employee, and some businesses may have many employees where they've put systems in place corporately, but the individual may not be willing to meet the terms of the bylaw," Work said.

Under Victoria's bylaw, an individual can be fined between $50 and $500, while a corporation can be fined $100 to $10,000 dollars. (CBC)

So far, he said, the ban appears to be working. The city is using surveys and audits to measure the impact.

"We haven't implemented firm accounting measures for businesses to report exactly on the amounts," Work said. 

"In the future, we may have a provision for businesses to report annually the number of paper bags and the number of reusable bags they're selling."

Fees for bags increase

The fees will increase in Victoria on July 1, 2019, to a minimum of 25 cents for paper checkout bags and $2 for reusable checkout bags.

Work says placing a financial value on a bag was a key component in driving the behaviour change that the city wanted to see. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"Placing a financial value on a bag was a key component in driving the behaviour change that we wanted to see," Work said. 

"We still need to have bag options for people that have an unplanned shopping excursion to carry things back to their homes, but we wanted to establish a price point for the bags that what would compel people to shift behaviour."

Victoria will mandate a fee increase next July to a minimum of 25 cents for paper checkout bags and $2 for reusable checkout bags. (John Robertson/CBC)

Work says there has been lots of interest from the other 13 municipalities around Victoria and from across the country, including Prince Edward Island.

"It's been neat to see P.E.I. take a leadership role," Work said. 

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca