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Discarded coffee cups are scattered on the ground in Vancouver. The city council has rescinded a plan to charge a 25 cent recycling fee for coffee cups over opposition.Andy Clark/Reuters

Vancouver’s new council has rescinded the city’s pioneering 25-cent fee for disposable restaurant cups, saying the policy did nothing to fix environmental problems and the public hated it.

“This was red tape and overreach,” said the initiator of the rescinding motion, Councillor Rebecca Bligh, who is part of the ABC team that has dominated council since last fall’s election.

“Ultimately, we remain open to the cause. I bring a reusable cup everywhere but for those who can’t, we need options.”

The fee brought complaints from people in the retail and restaurant sector, homeless people who ended up having to pay a fee even if someone donated a coffee to them, and many in the general public.

But the policy was widely supported by people working in recycling and in businesses trying to develop alternatives to paper cups.

How a new pilot project in Vancouver hopes to save 2.6-million coffee cups from the landfill

Representatives from several of those groups pleaded with council this week to keep the fee in order to initiate real change, not so much in consumer behaviour, but in corporate behaviour.

“The fee is actually causing action to happen,” said Cody Irwin, whose business ShareWares supplies, sanitizes and tracks reusable containers.

Louise Schwarz, a co-owner of Recycling Alternative, reminded councillors that, contrary to suggestions in the motion that the city look at new ways to recycle coffee cups, those polystyrene-covered paper cups have proven impossible to recycle.

“No one accepts coffee cups. They’re a contaminant and a waste. We are very clear, we have to take coffee cups to the incinerator in Burnaby.”

But Ms. Bligh said later that some speakers were arguing for the city to act as “an igniter and accelerator for their business.”

She acknowledged that no one had any verifiable numbers on what the impact of the fee had been, “but there was countless anecdotal evidence.”

The fee will be in place until June as staff rewrite the bylaw.

Many cities and countries around the world are trying to figure out how to reduce single-use plastics, through outright bans or fees for their use.

Berkeley, Calif., was among the first to introduce a 25-cent cup fee in early 2020 as part of a much larger package of regulations aimed at reducing single-use foodware. No restaurant is allowed to use non-compostable cups. Customers are charged 25 US cents for a compostable cup if they don’t bring in their own container.

Sophie Hahn, the Berkeley councillor who introduced the package after consulting with local restaurants for two years and working with the Ecology Center in her city, said she’s firmly convinced it’s working.

“I’m pretty sure that the fee has been widely implemented and widely accepted. I’m going to bet we have way more compostables than we did before the ordnance,” said Ms. Hahn.

She said she believes her package got support from many, including restaurateurs and homeless people, because she did so much consultation to understand the consequences and fine-tune the regulations.

“Even the California Restaurant Association didn’t come out against it,” said Ms. Hahn.

But, she said, that isn’t going to be the same result everywhere if there isn’t a lot of discussion in advance.

A lot of cities have called her about putting in a similar fee. “They think, oh, they did it, we’ll do it, too. But they don’t do the work of actually reaching out.”

Guelph, Ont., is studying whether to bring in a cup fee, as are other cities.

But a researcher from York University in Toronto who specializes in municipal policy efforts at waste diversion says cup fees don’t produce the changes that environmentalists often think they will.

“It’s historically had poor results in getting companies to switch to a reusable model. It’s well-intentioned but, in the end, it’s not effective,” said Calvin Lakhan, of the faculty of environmental studies at York. “It’s really just nickel-and-diming the consumer.”

He said the Vancouver model is relatively unique and hasn’t been used in many other jurisdictions.

Prof. Lakhan said outright bans of certain foodware products that have compostable substitutes produces much more substantive change.

That’s something the federal government put into place this past December, with a phased plan to ban single-use plastics for grocery bags, foodservice ware, stir sticks, straws and cutlery.

But he said getting fast-food restaurants to switch to reusable items is going to take a lot of co-ordinated effort among many groups – producers, government, users – to figure out what kind of change is possible.

Ontario is going to start charging one to three cents apiece for what’s being called a “pop-can tax” on all plastic bottles and metal cans. Unlike in B.C., those won’t be able to be taken to a recycling centre for people to get that money back.