Edmonton restaurants grapple with proposed ban on single-use items

· The Pulse
By and

While some local restaurants have already eliminated the use of plastic straws, others are worried about the potential impact of Edmonton's proposed bylaw to ban or reduce the use of many single-use items, including plastic bags, cutlery, and Styrofoam containers.

Katy Ingraham, the owner of Fleisch Delikatessen, said cost and accessibility are concerns the restaurant industry will need to grapple with.

Fleisch has not stopped offering any single-use items, but only provides straws when requested. "We use compostable packaging where possible, but it's pricier," Ingraham told Taproot. "Chains and larger restaurant groups will likely be able to adapt and absorb these costs," she said. "Independents not so much."

As momentum for a ban on plastic straws gained steam in recent years, dozens of local restaurants decided to eliminate their use. Workshop Eatery owner and head chef Paul Shufelt said his restaurant was going through more than 150 straws per day when it made the decision to stop using them for the environment.

"They can't be recycled. There is really nothing you can do with them. They just end up in the landfill, or worse, in the lakes or the oceans," he told CBC News in 2018.

Shufelt estimated he would save hundreds of dollars each year with the change.

According to Waste Free Edmonton, research supports the notion that a ban might actually save businesses money. "Restaurants that switch to reusable food service items are estimated to save at least $1,000, even once the cost of washing facilities are included," it said. They also save money by not automatically offering single-use utensils, napkins, and other accessories that customers may not even use.

Restaurants Canada disagrees, suggesting in a news release earlier this year that "the industry will take on an estimated 125% increase in costs" due to the forthcoming federal ban on single-use plastics. "This does not account for the costs associated with the increased demand for such products resulting in supply shortages," it added.

A pile of plastic straws and plastic utensils wrapped in plastic

A public hearing is scheduled at Edmonton city council on Oct. 4 on a proposed bylaw that would, among other things, require customers to request "foodware accessories" such as straws and utensils instead of getting them automatically. (Jon Spencer)

Another concern is accessibility. "We adamantly keep plastic straws on hand for all customers but specifically for people with disabilities who cannot use any other alternatives," Ingraham said.

"There are disabled people who use plastic straws in our restaurant because that's the only way they would be able to have a drink in our establishment," she said. "If we can no longer get plastic straws, do those customers just get even more relegated from society?"

Karli Drew, an Edmonton disabled activist, told CityNews that alternative straws can be problematic as some melt and others contain allergens.

"I have to use single-use plastic straws, morning to night," she said. "Not just to hydrate but also meal replacement drinks because I can't always eat and swallow."

Bylaw could make Edmonton a leader

Bylaw 20117 — postponed from a public hearing last month — would ban plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam containers, make customers request any single-use accessories such as cutlery, and would compel restaurants to serve dine-in drink orders in reusable cups while also allowing customers to use their own reusable drink cups. City council will consider the bylaw at a public hearing on Oct. 4.

It is estimated that 450 million single-use items, or 1.2 million per day, end up in the garbage in Edmonton every year.

Edmonton would become the first city in Alberta to take substantial action in curbing disposables waste if the proposed bylaw is approved.

"Jurisdictions oftentimes don't want to be the first one. They want to see how others take the lead, and how it works," said Sean Stepchuk, director of Waste Free Edmonton, which has been advocating for the end of single-use plastics since 2018.

"I think Edmonton being a leader in this area will really galvanize other communities to do the same thing."

Federal ban takes effect in December

Federal legislation banning the sale of single-use plastics will be coming into effect in December 2023, and Canada is slated to stop exporting them by the end of 2025. Edmonton's bylaw would go beyond plastic items and includes all materials designed to be discarded, doing more to address the cultural norms behind the environmental waste problem, Stepchuk said.

"While this is dealing with a few specific, low-hanging-fruit waste problems, we hope that this will serve as a jumping-off point to have a broader discussion about waste and disposability, and how people are prone to just use things a few times before getting rid of it," Stepchuk said.

The bylaw would make Edmonton a leader in the fight to curb waste, and an outlier in a province actively trying to expand its petrochemical and polymer manufacturing sector. Alberta's government is also joining plastics manufacturers and petrochemical giants in a legal challenge of the federal single-use plastics ban, saying the move would put $30 billion of investment at risk.

Earlier this summer, the $4.3-billion Heartland Petrochemical Complex produced its first plastic pellets, and the facility is expected to produce 525,000 tonnes of polypropylene, and create 300 permanent jobs, once it is fully operational. These projects may have short-term economic benefits, but they also come with financial burden later in the lifecycle of the products they produce, Stepchuk said.

"From a financial standpoint, it's fair to say that the plastic manufacturers want to make these things. But who has to deal with them at the end of the day, who has to deal with the repercussions? That's all of us in terms of the environmental and human health impacts, and that's the city or eventually the taxpayer in terms of the disposal of these (plastic items)."

Ingraham is also concerned the bylaw doesn't target the biggest offenders of disposable waste.

"As with everything that sidesteps putting the onus on the biggest contributors to climate change and emissions, I believe it's a short-sighted move to appear to do something to combat climate change but will have little to no meaningful impact and will hinder an already severely beleaguered industry even more," she said.