City pushes new paper tax on Vancouver retailers, coffee shops

The City of Vancouver sure can throw some curveballs at times.

To paraphrase the late comedian Henny Youngman: Take the new paper cup and bag fees. . . please.

In the throes of a pandemic, with public health orders confusing even the Mensa members and inflation deflating even the miserly, it seems the least we need is even more disruption and the least we can afford is even more expense.

Yet here we go.

What was a semi-smart plan many moons ago to dissuade us from our patterned behaviour to use plastic bags and single-use coffee and tea cups feels semi-irritable in January 2022. It has the appropriateness of announcing a break-up as a partner’s Christmas gifts are opened.

The novel nature of these two civic taxes – 25 cents for a paper cup, 15 cents for a paper bag in 2022, rising by a nickel next year – is that the civic government doesn’t get the collected money.

Yes, you read that right: our city has resisted the temptation to collect the money.

Instead the taxes penalize unconscious consumer behaviour, place businesses in the unenviable position as enforcers, yet offer no leadership on how to channel the revenue. It is left to the devices of individual supermarkets, coffee shops, retailers, street vendors and the like to determine what to do with the funds. Oh, and the consumer is pickpocketed.

Some will keep them to defray the bag and cup costs, but many will donate them. Harry Rosen, for instance, announced it’s sending the money to the local United Way. There are excellent places to donate, in part thanks to the choices governments make about what to finance, and in the days ahead we’ll hear from companies where they’ll send the funds.

Now, a clever person might think that it’s an easy workaround to, say, reduce the cost of a cuppa by a quarter. But the city is requiring that the disposable cup fee be clearly stated in the receipt, so there is no real squirming away from the assessment on the consumer.

And if you don’t have a reusable cup program at your outlet, you’re going to have to tell the city in 2023 how many paper cups you sold in 2022. Same with the paper bags: no program of reusables will require disclosure of how many bags were sold.

All of this would be a neat social experiment were it not arriving in the larger social experiment of contesting with the coronavirus. The tax was postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic, but it seems the city believes the world it governs cannot any longer wait to get on with the imposition of more costs.

As its literature notes under the headline, “REDUCING SINGLE USE ITEMS IN COVID-19,” we need to remind ourselves as the pandemic infects record numbers of us, “BEING LEADERS IN SUSTAINABILITY AND WASTE REDUCTION IS STILL PART OF VANCOUVER’S DNA.”

Sensible operations some time ago walked away from plastic bags. Whole Foods hasn’t had them since the pre-pandemic era, as those of us old enough to remember will note, but it eats the cost of the paper bags – or, more accurately, embeds the cost in its products, thus the nickname Whole Paycheque.

The paper coffee cup is a different beast, and in the pandemic it is a far trickier beast to tame, because some shops are reluctant to handle your personal mug, no matter what the science is showing about transmission.

All this does is serve as another imposition on front-facing staff that easily could have been delayed a little longer until Omicron rides off and we see what is next. But no.

The new year’s resolutions in me are fresh enough today to refrain from harsh judgment, even if this taps into a longstanding belief that Vancouver marches to its own drummer in a direction that takes too many off a financial cliff.

So let’s see how this goes. Let’s see how businesses find virtue in this opportunity to collect nickels, dimes and quarters to then donate dollars to the neediest. Let’s assume the effort the make that morning joe more costly has its downstream benefits of reducing landfill and contributing funds.

For now, let’s withhold the unkind verdict, even if this was an inflationary test that ought to have waited for a better context.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.