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Rob Shaw: BC NDP attempts to put a lid on unnecessary waste

New regulations draw a bead on single-use lids for to-go beverages
New regulations over plastic lids has resulted in the province missing an opportunity to drive a larger, more meaningful, change with just a few tweaks to its new regulations, according to Rob Shaw.

What’s the deal with lids on coffee cups these days?

It sounds like the start of a Seinfeld skit. But it’s also a question in the wake of new B.C. government regulations that crack down on lids for to-go beverages.

Coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses are no longer allowed to put lids on to-go beverages as of Dec. 20, under new rules crafted by the BC NDP administration.

Customers can only have a lid for their hot coffee if they specifically ask an employee for one, or if they go get their own at a self-serve station located elsewhere in the business.

The idea is to reduce the number of plastic lids that end up in the landfill by making it such a hassle that some people will skip them entirely and roll the dice on spilling their uncovered macchiato all over themselves.

It’s all part of a larger suite of changes to limit unnecessary waste from single-use utensils, condiments, garnishes and packaging.

“I think their motivation is if you ask for it you will think twice about whether you truly need it or not,” said Greg Wilson, the British Columbia government relations representative for the Retail Council of Canada.

“I get it. But my largest members, who have been doing this for a week, will tell me quite consistently that they have people coming back into stores and coffee shops saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t give me a blank [lid, cutlery or other single-use item],’ and not always being very nice about it.”

The goal is laudable. Too many unused items like napkins, forks and ketchup packets end up in the garbage because they are automatically placed in to-go bags for customers who may not want them. It makes sense to only offer those things on-demand for people who will use them.

But the change to beverage lids feels like a missed opportunity.

Some companies have already invested heavily in swapping out plastic lids for compostable alternatives. Tim Hortons began rolling out new fibre lids for hot beverages in 2023, which could remove millions of disposable plastic lids from the landfill.

It’s not a cheap move. Fibre lids cost at least twice as much as plastic. Yet the new government regulations don’t provide any recognition for companies that voluntarily spend more to help the province achieve its pollution-reduction goals. Fibre lids are treated like plastic.

It raises an interesting question. What would actually be better for the environment: A retail sector that automatically places fully-compostable fibre lids on all drinks, or one that makes it a slight hassle for people to keep using plastic ones?

“It’s a fantastic question,” said Wilson. “One of the things we suggested is to exempt fibre lids and perhaps you can incent an entire movement from plastic lids to fibre lids.”

The government’s response? No.

“The intent of B.C.’s Single-Use and Plastic Waste Prevention Regulation is to reduce waste of all single use products, not just plastics,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement.

That despite the fact the word “plastic” is in the name of the regulation and virtually every public statement the NDP government has made about the issue links the policy goal to plastic reduction.

“Phasing out single-use plastics is part of the CleanBC Plastics Action Plan's goal of changing how plastic is designed and used, from temporary and disposable, to durable and reusable,” read the government news release announcing the change.

“We want to ensure people have the best options available to effectively transition from single-use plastics," Heyman said in the same release.

Unfortunately, the result is a “plastic waste prevention regulation” that doesn’t do much to encourage “transition” from plastic beverage lids. Which is a shame. The province missed an opportunity to drive a larger, more meaningful, change with just a few tweaks to its new regulations.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]