Q & A: Veteran councillor says another, better single-use items bylaw will come

CBC News asked Coun. Peter Demong about the controversial single-use items bylaw and what happens next. (The Canadian Press/The City of Calgary - image credit)
CBC News asked Coun. Peter Demong about the controversial single-use items bylaw and what happens next. (The Canadian Press/The City of Calgary - image credit)

For years, a veteran member of council has been the go-to guy if you want to talk about waste management.

So how come a councillor who supported bringing in the single-use items bylaw a year ago was in the council chamber this week voting in support of its repeal?

Ward 14 Coun. Peter Demong was a key proponent of the city's rollout of the green carts, once a new compost facility had been established.

And he's spent the past seven years digging into the complex world of extended producer responsibility (EPR).

That's a program that will make major manufacturers or businesses financially responsible for the full life cycle of the waste from the products they make or sell.

It's coming to Alberta in the next year, and Demong says it will result in a dramatic drop in your monthly blue cart charge.

CBC News asked Demong about the controversial single-use items bylaw and what happens next.

Here is a portion of that conversation, which was edited for clarity.

CBC: The minimum charges for bags were part of the single-use item approved by council a year ago and you supported that. Are you surprised how that became such a lightning rod for complaints?

Peter Demong: I thought [at the time], is it the best plan ever? Probably not, but it's very similar to the one that was rolling out in Edmonton and I heard there were some hiccups when that rolled out, but nothing terribly severe like what we've just seen here in Calgary.

Mind you, I don't know if they had a couple of columnists and the premier putting their finger on the scale when Edmonton's rolled out, which makes it a little more awkward for us.

But having said that, I was willing to take a chance to see what the rollout looked like.

I wasn't really focused on drive-thrus. I was thinking more consumer and retail, with the bag charge, etc. If I had really focused on the drive-thru, I would have brought forward an amendment at that time to say, 'Hey, let's not do the drive-thru thing.' But again, you can't think of every potential outcome when you're putting forward new ideas.

Why do you believe a single-use item bylaw is still needed?

PD: The idea of trying to keep as much out of a landfill is what I've been working on for pretty much the last 10 years.

When I got elected [in 2010], we'd just rolled out the blue bins, which diverted a great deal from the landfills. When we built our compost facility five or eight years ago, we thought we overbuilt it like crazy and it was going to be there for 25 years. Within five years, it's been overfilling. So Calgarians want to do the right thing.

What we need to do is try to figure out what exactly they're willing to do and focus on that. And in many ways, I thought this bylaw did that, in that it encouraged people to use less. Or just ask for what you're going to use and go ahead and use it.

So I'm frustrated, but at the same time, I understand that people are saying this is not quite it. So we're going to go back and we're going to figure out what that "it" is. It's not going to involve a 15-cent charge, I can tell you that much.

Given your knowledge of the topic, why were you so quiet during the council debate this week?

PD: I could have talked about how the other half of this bylaw was really good. But when I see six or seven councillors coming in with their hair on fire about a certain topic, knowing full well that a couple of columnists have been beating the drums for the past week or two since this came out and the premier putting her thumb on the scale, I know which way the world is turning.

Do I agree with it?  No. But at the same time, screaming into the wind sometimes doesn't do you any good. And obviously there's a demand for a change.

There were a lot of constituents that were unhappy with what they perceived as a bad bylaw and I don't want to go forward with a bad bylaw, even if it's only perceived as a bad bylaw. It's better to go back to the drawing board, come back with something that might be better received and hopefully will do the same good job.

I basically said, OK, I'm not going to ... fight tooth and nail to hang onto something that a lot of people don't want. So, let's start again. It's not the first time I've had to go back and start again with waste diversion issues.

What is your level of confidence that this topic is going to be addressed in a new bylaw and one that will not generate the same kind of outrage?

PD: It's going to be a total of eight-and-a-half years to bring EPR to fruition. If it takes another couple of years of wrangling councillors and administration to come forward with a bylaw that will work, so be it.

The fact of the matter is those 12 million single-use items aren't stopping. They're continuing every week, month by month as a slow growth to the landfill. We'll get there. I don't know when. I don't know what it's going to look like. But it's something that has to happen. We can't continue with that amount of materials going into landfills. It has to change.