To encourage the use of reusable shopping bags, Woodside will follow the lead of San Mateo County government and ban flimsy plastic bags at retail checkout counters starting on Earth Day, April 22. Retailers may continue to use plastic bags for certain items, such as food to go, prescription drugs, fresh produce, and small parts from hardware stores. Customers without bags of their own will have to pay 10 cents to buy a paper one.
After a vigorous discussion on whether or not to include that fee in Woodside's law, the Town Council voted 4-2 on Tuesday to introduce the ordinance, with councilmen Tom Shanahan and Peter Mason dissenting, and Councilman Dave Burow absent. Mr. Burow and Mr. Shanahan opposed the concept of this regulation when the council first considered it in February 2012; Mr. Mason's dissent is new.
New ordinances follow a two-step process in which the council votes once to introduce it and once to adopt it. The council would have adopted this ordinance, but must now wait and vote again because it chose to significantly revise the language around a provision that would have required retailers to keep a record of paper bags sold.
That the ordinance underwent this kind of revision at the last minute is a consequence of the county having done the ground work on its own ordinance, including an expensive environmental study, the intention being to make it easy for individual communities to sign on. By adopting the county's language by reference, a community is considered less vulnerable to lawsuits from plastic bag manufacturers. By eliminating the record-keeping requirement, the Woodside council forgoes that benefit.
The merchants in town have been cooperative, Town Manager Kevin Bryant has said, and the proposed law has long had the support of the California Grocers Association.
One person spoke during the public hearing, Judy Sieber, the owner of the Emily Joubert Home & Garden gift store, and she argued against charging for paper bags. Ms. Seiber held up an sample bag from her store, light gray with logos and white handles. "I kind of use this as a gift, in a way," she said. "It feels a little IRS-ish to me. I think we have a very smart community and people are ecologically minded."
A blow for freedom
The council discussion included controversy, and on hand to take questions was Mary Bell Austin of the county's Office of Environmental Health. Among the questions:
■ Do reusable bags carry bacteria? The county knows of one case involving a norovirus that may or may not have been on the outside of a paper bag, Ms. Bell Austin said. Money and groceries also carry bacteria, she noted. "There are a lot of vectors for disease. People are going to take care, the way they do with other things."
■ Will people pay for paper bags? Fees are working as such in San Jose and San Francisco, Ms. Bell Austin said, and imagined a scenario in which a customer begins to get the message: "Damn it. I forgot my reusable bag. I'm going to have to pay my 10 cents."
■ What happens if Woodside chooses not to have an ordinance? The laws are meant to comply with state and federal regulations that apply to all communities. "This kind of thing would help us in meeting that target," Mr. Bryant said.
During the discussion, the council split on whether to charge customers for a paper bag. Fees work, Councilman Ron Romines said. Smokers tend to quit as cigarettes get more expensive and everyone seems to have taken bottle deposits in stride, he added. "I think if you charge a fee on paper bags, you're going to see a lot more use of reusable bags."
Mr. Mason called the incentive argument "ridiculous," noting that he doesn't buy a beverage based on whether he is paying a bottle deposit. "I'm not in favor of record keeping, the fees, anything," he said at one point.
Mayor Anne Kasten voted for the fee and against the record keeping, but expressed her reluctance. "I take umbrage at the charge for the bag," she said. "I take great umbrage at the record keeping. I am personally pleased to see that we're moving. It puts a little stake in the ground."
Mr. Shanahan said he would gladly approve a resolution urging citizens to handle plastic bags responsibly. "I don't think I was elected to the Town Council of Woodside to issue mandates and instructions to the people who live on my block and in my town," he said, then cited excess regulation as the reason Santa Clara-based Intel Corp. is building a plant in Arizona rather than California.
Councilwoman Deborah Gordon countered that regulations are important, that one need look no further than the pollution and trash in Beijing and parts of Mongolia to see why, and that Woodside and its creeks used to be much dirtier. "I don't think we made all these changes by ourselves," she said. "It took some prodding by state government, by local government."
"Unrestrained capitalism is silly," Mr. Shanahan replied, but there are important tradeoffs such as unemployment. "At the margins, it's hard on the rest of the people. Why should we continue to lean in this direction?"
What if Woodside is the only community in the county without an ordinance, Mr. Mason asked at one point.
"Everybody will be coming here to shop!" remarked Councilman Ron Romines as the room erupted in laughter.
"It'll be a freedom zone," Mr. Shanahan said.
"When I go to Roberts Market," Mr. Shanahan remarked after the vote, "I'm going to wear a little tag that says 'I voted no.'"