Almanac

News - October 5, 2011

Should local towns ban plastic bags?

by Sandy Brundage

Someday, that plastic bag you carried home from Safeway might be worth something on eBay. OK, probably not, but it may become an endangered species in San Mateo County.

The Board of Supervisors decided on Sept. 27 to ask local cities whether they'd support banning plastic bags throughout the county.

Needless to say, Save the Bay thinks that's a great idea. The nonprofit organization estimates Bay Area residents throw away more than 100 bags per second after using each for about 12 minutes. One million of those bags end up in the Bay, damaging wetlands and wildlife, according to the nonprofit.

"What is remarkable about this particular policy is that the San Mateo County supervisors would like to encourage countywide collaboration, and are considering different ways of bringing all the county's cities into the process," said Amy Ricard, spokesperson for Save the Bay. " In fact, the county is considering completing an EIR in such a way that would apply to all the San Mateo County cities, with the goal to have the cities pass their ordinances simultaneously."

Then there's the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, fighting for the survival of plastic bags everywhere on behalf of merchants and manufacturers. Its data shows that plastic bags don't deserve their bad reputation. Environmental research, according to the group's website, shows that paper bags actually do more damage by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

And not all customers opt for re-usable bags over paper: A 2008 survey of 25 stores by the ULS Report found that the majority of observed San Francisco shoppers chose paper bags instead of re-usable totes a year after that city's ban took effect.

While plastic bags are a popular environmental issue in many communities, not all towns within the Almanac's coverage area need to jump on the bandwagon — Atherton has no retail. Portola Valley and Woodside, meanwhile, seem to taking a wait and see approach.

"In Portola Valley we have very few retail establishments. If the county asks its cities to join forces to adopt a plastic bag ban, we would likely look to the Town Council for guidance as our approach in the past has been to encourage rather than regulate," said Brandi de Garmeaux, the town's sustainability and resource efficiency coordinator, in an email. "Currently, we are working with the one or two vendors who use expanded polystyrene and/or plastic bags to find more environmentally friendly products."

She said that for a small town with limited retail, like Portola Valley, bans can foster ill will against the town and make it more difficult to work with local businesses to adopt additional environmentally friendly practices, such as energy- and water-efficiency upgrades. So the town uses encouragement and assistance instead of adopting ordinances that would force retailers to participate

Woodside's assistant town manager Kevin Bryant said that the town has no plans to look into banning plastic bags.

That leaves Menlo Park. The Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to discuss a ban on Wednesday, Oct. 5, with a focus on prohibiting the city's 251 food vendors from using plastic bags. That meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center at 701 Laurel St.

Data provided by Save the Bay shows that nine cities in the Bay Area have either banned plastic bags or are researching a ban. Several, such as Berkeley and Fremont, are waiting for the results of an environmental impact report (EIR) from Stopwaste, a public agency in Alameda County. While an EIR has usually been required to implement a bag ban, the California Supreme Court ruled this summer that a full report may not be needed before implementing an ordinance prohibiting stores from giving the bags to customers.

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