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Calgary city council approves repeal process for single-use items bylaw

City council at the Calgary Municipal Building in Calgary, as seen in a file photo from March 2022. (Oseremen Irete/CBC - image credit)
City council at the Calgary Municipal Building in Calgary, as seen in a file photo from March 2022. (Oseremen Irete/CBC - image credit)

Calgary council voted Tuesday to begin a repeal process for its single-use items bylaw — two weeks after it came into effect — in the wake of what all involved acknowledged had been significant public pushback.

At issue was a policy the city said was intended to target waste.

More than 15 million single-use items like bags, cutlery and napkins are being deposited weekly into landfills, according to the city. That's in addition to anywhere from 850,000 to one million paper bags weekly from drive-thrus.

The solution that council approved in January 2023 by a 10-4 vote requires businesses to ask customers if they wanted a bag with their purchase for a minimum fee. As well, businesses are not to provide foodware, straws or other items unless customers ask for those.

"Best practice tells us that waste reduction is the first and preferred option when it comes to a holistic and effective waste management system," said Lee-Ann Bell, leader of strategic planning and policy for waste recycling, prior to Tuesday's vote.

"The best way to deal with preventable waste is not to have to deal with it at all. Waste reduction and reuse are even better than recycling and composting, which use energy and cost us money. The last option should always be disposal."

Waste and recycling
Waste and recycling

Lee-Ann Bell, right, leader of strategic planning and policy for waste recycling with the City of Calgary, said the single-use items bylaw was implemented in an attempt to target more than 15 million items thrown into the garbage each week. (City of Calgary)

But the bylaw was contentious, even drawing criticism from Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who maligned the rules in a Calgary Herald column, encouraging residents to call their councillor and the mayor.

After a lengthy debate Tuesday, council voted 10-5 in favour of repealing the law, with councillors Andre Chabot, Sean Chu, Peter Demong, Raj Dhaliwal, Dan McLean, Richard Pootmans, Evan Spencer, Sonya Sharp, Terry Wong and Jennifer Wyness in favour.

Councillors Gian-Carlo Carra, Jasmine Mian, Kourtney Penner and Courtney Walcott and Mayor Jyoti Gondek were opposed.

Council and administration acknowledged the debate had drummed up significant — and sometimes fiery — public pushback. Councillors said they had been bombarded by hundreds of emails, some of which crossed the line for Carra, among others.

"The amount of incivility and wild claims in the emails that we have received by the hundreds is remarkable," said the councillor for Ward 9.

The vote followed a lengthy debate that saw battle lines drawn by both sides of the issue. On one side, a contingent led by Wyness brought forward the motion to repeal the bylaw, arguing it was put into place too quickly, had caused confusion and might not align with waste policies at the provincial and federal levels.

On Tuesday, she also argued the bylaw didn't have clear metrics to evaluate its impact.

"Calgarians have spoken up, and this council is demonstrating yet again how we say, 'That is not a concern to us. Oh, it's just 15 cents,'" Wyness said. "Yet there is a concern out there, and I think we need to start showing that we hear Calgarians."

On the other side, some councillors, including Ward 11's Penner, have said that while the rollout of the policy may have been confusing, repealing the policy was an overreaction amid a need to reduce waste.

Penner said council hadn't given the new policy a shot, given its two-week implementation.

"I would also say we passed this bylaw a year ago," Penner told council.

"If there were changes that some members around this council wanted to see and they wanted to see some of the strategies before us today, or they wanted to see measurement metrics, they've had a year to work with administration before the implementation of that to try to enact those changes."

The bylaw will remain in effect for now.

The city must advertise its intent to repeal the bylaw and hold a public hearing on the change, which is expected to take place this spring.