After four months of waiting, Calgary restaurants say goodbye to short-lived single-use item bylaw

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the City of Calgary failed to properly explain the bylaw to residents and businesses before it arrived in mid-January.

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Calgary businesses waved goodbye on Tuesday to the city’s short-lived, single-use items bylaw, marking the end of a brief period during which customers in equal measure accepted and rejected the charge, local business owners say.

While some businesses have felt the public mood improve in recent months, the federation representing small businesses in Alberta said the single-use bylaw was a failure in communications and left businesses to fend for themselves.

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Calgary city council voted on Tuesday to scrap the bylaw, which went into effect in mid-January. The bylaw was created with the intention of reducing the amount of waste ending up in Calgary landfills. Food vendors were required to charge customers 15 cents for a paper bag or $1 for a reusable cloth bag. Those fees would have doubled in 2025.

An immediate firestorm of criticism prompted council to start the repeal process just two weeks after the new rules took effect. However, the bylaw had remained in effect until Tuesday.

Customers’ sour attitudes preceded the bylaw mostly due to major cost increases over recent years, which likely made them more sensitive to the bag charges, said Nicholas Yee, founder of Holy Grill, a Calgary-based burger restaurant that has four locations in the city.

“The meals are already a lot more expensive than it used to be and then they get a couple bag charges on top?” Yee said. “Money is a sensitive topic for a lot of guests.”

His overall experience with customers was mixed: “It pisses customers off, that’s for sure. A lot of people are cool with it — that’s also for sure.”

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Council’s reversal on the bylaw highlights a communications failure and left businesses to explain the policy to some agitated customers, said Andrew Sennyah, provincial affairs director for Alberta at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“We’ve seen, time and time again, the issue that business and residents have with the city, with city administration, is communicating policy,” Sennyah said.

The city could have pursued several avenues online to communicate the bylaw ahead of time, he said, and added that a more fulsome communications plan is critical for new policy that introduces new costs to consumers.

“Some people were for it, some people were against it, some people may be indifferent toward it. But the bottom line is that communication piece that exists irrespective of policy.”

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‘When change comes, there’s always going to be resistance’

Rochel Rabanel, manager at Inglewood Drive In, said customers’ response to the extra fee was similarly a toss-up. But the restaurant has since transitioned to providing compostable wooden utensils, she said, which it will continue to provide despite the bylaw being repealed.

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Over the past four months, Michael Klassen said he’s seen customers grow more comfortable with the fees, similar to the QR-code menus that were normalized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When change comes, there’s always going to be resistance . . . but like anything, people got used to it and it became the norm,” said Klassen, director of brand development at Joey’s Franchise Group. Joey’s owns the popular Joey’s Fish Shack and Joey’s Restaurants franchises, as well as strEATS takeout restaurants.

Even so, Klassen was frustrated by the bylaw’s structure. Charges for takeout containers and bags are already factored into a meal’s final tab, he said, meaning restaurants were raking in another 15 cents off the top of every customer who requested a bag.

He was also surprised the bylaw wasn’t designed to return fees to the city to support specific programs, and instead would only benefit businesses’ balance sheets.

But Klassen said he’s pleased his restaurants no longer have to deal with the bylaw after several years of instability wrought by COVID-19 and major price increases. He said Joey’s restaurants have had to implement three to four price increases in the past couple of years due to the rising cost of goods, and the bag bylaw added another layer of stress to consumers.

“We’re not fast food . . . but we get the expensive comment sometimes. I just wish we could educate customers on what actually goes into it and our costing model,” he said.

Joey’s businesses have already dropped the charge. Klassen said he hopes his peers in the restaurant do the same.

“I think if any business keeps the bag charge there, I think the customer should call them on it.”

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