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Vancouver’s disposable cup fee isn't going away. Instead, businesses must make some big changes.

City staff: ‘Removing or delaying the cup fee will disadvantage small businesses’
Vancouver’s 25-cent disposable cup fee bylaw came into effect Jan. 1 and will remain indefinitely. It's the first fee of its kind in Canada.

Vancouver’s new 25-cent disposable cup fee will remain in effect but city staff recommends a series of changes to the bylaw that include all vendors having to accept customers’ reusable cups for drinks ordered in-store.

That requirement, which many businesses have already implemented, would take effect in July.

A staff report that goes before council March 2 also recommends that free drinks obtained through gift cards, vouchers or donation programs operated by many non-profits and businesses be exempt from the cup fee, as of March 29.

Such a move would not only reduce friction between customers and vendors but remove a barrier to people experiencing poverty or living on a low income who rely on free-drink programs, the report said.

“Industry associations and large businesses indicated support for initiatives to improve equity, with one significant barrier being the bylaw requirement to charge the cup fee on free drinks,” the report said.

“Exempting free drinks from the cup fee would give businesses more opportunities to support people disproportionately affected by income inequality.”

In addition, staff wants to work with non-profits and businesses to develop and expand cup-share programs for the same group of citizens who can’t afford to pay for a coffee, a reusable mug or the 25-cent fee.

The recommended changes are in response to city council’s unanimous decision Jan. 25 to have staff take a second look at the new bylaw, which took effect Jan. 1. The move was triggered by Coun. Rebecca Bligh, who raised concerns from customers and businesses about the fee, the first of its kind in Canada.

All food vendors with a business licence must comply with the disposable cup bylaw, with the 25-cent fee required to be displayed on menus, including online ordering platforms.

Businesses keep the cup fees and are encouraged to invest in reusable cups for drinks to stay, commercial dishwashers and reusable cup-share programs.

The city also brought in a separate bylaw Jan. 1 that requires businesses to charge 15 cents for a paper bag, or $1 for a new reusable shopping bag. That bylaw has been less controversial than the cup fee, which staff emphasized will not be repealed.

“The 25-cent cup fee would remain in effect while staff develop the bylaw amendments and supportive actions described [in the report],” the report said.

“Removing or delaying the cup fee will disadvantage small businesses that have put significant effort into complying with the bylaw and transitioning to reusables, and potentially derail many of the reusable cup initiatives currently underway.”

Staff’s research over the past few weeks found that many businesses have already introduced reusable cup programs, while others still haven’t adapted to the city’s push to eliminate single-use items from the landfill.

Of 33 small businesses and local chains sampled, 28 were accepting customers' reusable cups and 20 had cups available for drinks ordered to consume in the business.

The sample included seven smoothie and juice vendors, of which four accepted customers’ reusable cups, but none had reusable cups for drinks ordered to stay.

“Not all businesses are at the same level in implementing reusables programs,” the report said.

“Staff observed that multinational chains and franchises are currently lagging behind small businesses and local chains in giving customers options to avoid the [25-cent] fee.”

Of 24 locations sampled, 17 accepted customers’ reusable cups for some or all drinks, and only four had reusable cups for drinks ordered to stay. At least two locations accepted customers’ reusable cups for select hot drinks only.

In addition, staff observed some variation between locations within local and multinational chains.

For example, a local smoothie chain promoted their “bring-your-own-cup” program via email, but when staff phoned five different stores, only two locations said they would accept a customer’s reusable cup. The other three said they would not.

Staff also phoned three locations of a multinational chain that serves both hot drinks and fountain drinks. Two locations said they would accept a customer’s reusable cup for all types of drinks, and the other would not accept them for any.

The non-profit Hua Foundation conducted phone calls with 30 bubble tea vendors on behalf of the city. Twenty locations reported accepting customers’ reusable cups for all drinks. Two locations accepted them for some drinks and eight do not currently accept reusable cups.

“Anecdotally, staff also observed that more customers are choosing reusable options in locations where information about the cup fee and goal of reducing single-use cup waste is prominently displayed,” the report said. “This observation is consistent with behaviour change research.”

In 2018, 82 million single-use cups, 89 million plastic shopping bags and four million paper shopping bags were thrown in the garbage in Vancouver.

According to the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, cups and plastic bags are among the top 10 items littered on Canadian beaches and shorelines.

The council meeting to discuss staff’s report begins at 9:30 a.m. on March 2 and can be viewed via livestream on the city’s website. The full report can be read here.