City touts new plastic bag ban as first in province

A garbage truck dumps a load at the Prince Albert landfill. – Screencap from City of Prince Albert Youtube page.

Prince Albert is the first city in Saskatchewan to ban the use of plastic retail bags after a new bylaw received unanimous approval at Monday’s city council meeting.

The bylaw passed with only one amendment, which eliminated a section allowing the sale of paper bags instead of plastic at a minimum cost of 15 cents per bag.

“The fact that this bylaw has made it here to third reading really shows that this council is supporting the concept of really trying to reduce waste (and) single use plastics in our landfill,” said Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp, the most vocal supporter of the new bylaw. “I’m very proud of the work that has gone into this bylaw.”

Plastic bags can still be used in strict circumstances. For example, certain foods like fruits, vegetables, freshly baked goods or frozen meat can still be wrapped in plastic, as can flowers, potted plants and freshly wrapped clothes. However, retail and food services businesses are banned from using them as checkout bags.

Individuals who violate the new bylaw face a fine of up to $100 for a first offence, up to $200 for a second, and between $200 and $500 for all subsequent offences. Businesses face fines of up to $500 for a first offence, up to $1,000 for a second and between $1,000 and $10,000 for all subsequent offences.

The city will not enforce the bylaw or levy fines for the next six months to give businesses and individuals a chance to adjust.

“I’m very pleased to see it get to this stage,” Lennox-Zepp said during Monday’s meeting. “I think that we are, here at this city council want to be on the right side of history on this … and we know that these plastic bags are on their way out.”

Mayor Greg Dionne called the decision a bold step that would help reduce waste headed to the city’s landfill, but said the city still has some work to do. The bylaw will have no effect on online shopping, which means packages that arrive from internet giants like Amazon or eBay may still have plastic packaging.

Dionne said the city plans to raise the issue at the Federation Canadian Municipalities meeting in June, and the upcoming SUMA convention that starts Feb. 2.

“Online people, it’s just amazing how they wrap and ship stuff. Unfortunately, we can’t reach out and touch them. That’s why I agree … that the federal government and provincial government has to get onboard to assist us,” he said during Monday’s meeting. “We do know that there is a challenge, especially with our major stores who are competing with online … but unfortunately we cannot touch them. But we will be very active at SUMA and FCM asking the government to move.”

City council first began debating a plastic bag bylaw in May 2019, when Lennox-Zepp asked for a report on the feasibility of banning plastic bags. That report showed an estimated 3.6 million single use plastic bags were used every year in Prince Albert, but only nine per cent were ever recycled. Another 12 per cent were burned and 79 per cent were thrown away, either in the city landfill or on the ground.

An online survey of city residents showed 75 per cent wanted a plastic bag ban, with a majority wanting the ban in place “within six months.” The survey was conducted in July 2017. More than 1,700 residents responded it.

Chamber CEO worries council moving too quickly with bag ban

Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce CEO Elise Hildebrandt said the vast majority of businesses support the city’s plastic bag ban, but there are concerns about how it’s being implemented.

Hildebrandt urged council to wait until the federal government finishes its review into plastic bag bylaws. She said retailers are worried that new federal laws will conflict with municipal ones. That could force business owners to start the compliance process all over again. Ideally, Hildebrandt said they’d like the start date pushed back to early next year.

She also worried that Prince Albert businesses would lose customers due to the ban, since out-of-town shoppers would go elsewhere for their purchases.

Hildebrandt said a survey of chamber members showed that 51 per cent wanted the City to temporarily hold off on its plastic bag ban. They sent the survey to all Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce members, and received response rate of roughly 10 per cent. That amounts to around 70 businesses. Respondents were allowed to complete the survey anonymously.

“It takes time to switch a mindset,” she told council. “Plastic bags are on their way out. We already know that, but our business community does not feel that the switch can successfully be done in six months.”

Hildebrandt also expressed concerns about the section on selling paper bags for 15 cents, which she said was too vague for business owners’ liking. City council responded by voting to remove the section from the bylaw, however council did not agree with her other concerns.

Ward 4 Coun. Don Cody said city administrators did “a fantastic job” preparing the bylaw and consulting with local businesses, and said six months was more than enough time for them to adapt. He also disagreed with any notion they should wait for further direction from the federal or provincial governments.

“I think it’s high time that we become a leader, not a follower,” Cody said during the meeting. “We don’t follow (other levels of) government. Government is too slow for us in the City. We’re class, we’re on track, we want to do things now, and we’re going to do them now, and we’re going to go ahead with this bylaw.”