On Earth Day (April 22) in the spring of 2013, retailers in Ladera, West Menlo Park and other unincorporated communities of San Mateo County will have to end their use of the flimsy plastic bags at checkout counters. The county Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 on Oct. 23 to certify the environmental impact report (EIR) and adopt an ordinance regulating the use of such bags.
The board's action opens the door for similar ordinances in cities and towns in the county, and the City Council in Menlo Park and the town councils in Portola Valley and Woodside have indicated their intentions to do so. (Atherton has no retail businesses within its borders.)
The environmental impact report is a key element in what has been a group effort. Twenty-four cities and towns -- 18 in San Mateo County and six in Santa Clara County -- joined both county governments in participating in the impact study. Why? Strength in numbers, Dean Peterson, the director of San Mateo County's Department of Environmental Health, told the Woodside Town Council in March. Bag-banning ordinances crafted by individual communities have been vulnerable to court challenges by deep-pocketed bag manufacturers. "So far, no one has sued (over an ordinance) with an EIR attached," he said.
To encourage shopping with reusable bags, the new regulations set a 10-cent price for a paper bag until Jan. 1, 2015, when the price will be 25 cents. Such fees can be effective. In Washington, D.C., for example, retailers saw an 80 percent drop in use of store-supplied bags with a 5-cent fee, and little to no impact on sales, according to the EIR.
Restaurants are exempt, as are nonprofits with retail outlets.
The regulation is not unpopular with grocers. In an Oct. 22 letter to the Board of Supervisors, Tim James of the California Grocers Association approved. "It is critical (that) carryout bag regulations meet their intended environmental goals, respect consumers, and minimize impacts on retailers. We believe the ordinance as proposed meets these tests. We also strongly encourage all jurisdictions participating in the final EIR to pursue this same ordinance in order to maximize the environmental gain and avoid competitive disadvantages for retailers."
Shoppers can be fickle -- they've been known to patronize nearby stores that don't charge for bags -- so grocers have an interest in regulations common to neighboring towns, Mr. James said. "That broader geographic coverage -- that's what smooths it out for us," he said.
Grocery stores focus on high sales because their profit margins are so low, Mr. James told the Almanac. The average U.S. grocer earned a profit of 0.98 percent in 2010 and 1.09 percent in 2011, he said.
Within a year, some 90 percent of shoppers switch to reusable bags or use no bag, Mr. James wrote in his letter.
Findings of fact
The 62-page environmental study found that consumers in San Mateo County annually "consume" 386 million bags of the type intended to be controlled by this regulation. This volume "compromises the efficiency of infrastructure systems designed to channel storm-water runoff, leading to increased clean‐up costs," the EIR said.
The math to determine the benefits is complicated. The new law is expected to reduce air pollution from manufacturing, but increase it incrementally by trucking around reusable and recycled-paper bags.
Coastal wildlife will have fewer bags to deal with, the report said, but greenhouse gas emissions would rise incrementally if single-use paper bags become more popular. The new regulations may also cause a drop in water quality with the introduction of more chemicals associated with paper and reusable bag production, the report said.
The new regulations will eliminate 95 percent of the traffic in the flimsy plastic bags, but are expected to raise use of paper bags by 30 percent and reusable bags by 65 percent. People tend to recycle paper bags more than plastic, but a single-use paper bag "has significantly larger greenhouse gas emissions" over its lifetime, including greater effects on atmospheric acidification, water consumption and ozone production, the report said.