Menlo Park wants to ban bags on its own terms
Reluctant to cede control to San Mateo County, the Menlo Park City Council wants to add a clause to the proposed ban on single-use plastic bags that would allow the city to decide whether to incorporate any changes the county makes in the future.
The county Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance in October 2012 for unincorporated parts of the county and asked the cities to adopt it. The ban, which takes effect April 22, prohibits the use of plastic bags by retailers, except those used by restaurants and for produce, and also implements a 10-cent fee for paper bags. That fee would rise to 25 cents per paper bag on Jan. 1, 2015.
Menlo Park, along with 24 other Peninsula cities, decided last year to support the county's proposed ordinance, in part to save the city from spending at least $150,000 for its own environmental review.
During its Jan. 8 meeting, the council asked City Attorney Bill McClure what approving the countywide ordinance would mean for the city, should the county decide to expand the ban or increase fees for single-use bags. He explained that the county could force Menlo Park to adopt the changes; while the city could opt out of the ordinance, it would probably need to perform its own environmental impact report (EIR) to do so.
An EIR might also be triggered if Menlo Park decided to revise the ordinance, he said. Some changes discussed at the meeting were whether compostable plastic bags should be allowed, lower fees for customers who choose paper bags, and incorporating a "check in" period to evaluate how well the ban is working.
Councilwoman Cat Carlton described not including compostable bags as a glaring omission, saying her research suggests that the bags place less stress on the environment compared with paper bags, and were easily recycled.
Environmental programs manager Rebecca Fotu responded that not all compostable bags are created equal, since there's no single standard for manufacturers to meet. Local composting facilities can handle bags that biodegrade within 60 days, but some bags require up to 90. Other factors include the difficulty of distinguishing a compostable bag from other types, which could create enforcement problems.
Members of the Stop the Bag Ban coalition challenged the need for a ban in the first place. "(We're) a group of citizens fed up with this type of terrible nanny state-type law," said Don Williams. "Where's the evidence that Menlo Park actually has a problem? There's no real evidence."
Other speakers begged to differ, as did the council. "This is our pollution," said Adina Levin, environmental quality commissioner and Sierra Club member. She noted that while working in Palo Alto, she always thought reusable bags were a good idea, but it wasn't until that city passed its ban that she actually started using them.
In the end, the council voted 5-0 to introduce the ordinance, adding a clause that requires any changes by the county to be approved by the Menlo Park City Council before implementation within the city, and a request that staff spend the remaining time before the ban is adopted at a future meeting to research how much flexibility the city has to make its own revisions.