County to ban plastic bags at most checkout counters

Cities and towns expected to follow suit.

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.


Like this comment
Posted by gina
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Nov 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm

This ban will not change anything. People who rely on plastic bags for their garbage or clean up after their pets will just start using paper bags. they think by forcing us to pay for paper bags we will switch to those reusable bags. As long as people have money to shell out for paper bags their use will not diminish but will increase. I would rather shell out money for paper bags knowing that no matter how much you wash reusable bags the bacteria in the bottom of the bag will always be there. I for one will not be told how and what I put my groceries in. If I have the money I will always ask for paper. This law is just another stupid law consumers have to deal with.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Bacteria, companions to us all ...

From a San Francisco Chronicle article, July 5, 2012:

The human body carries more than 100 trillion bacteria - up to five pounds of the tiny single-celled organisms. The mouth alone has several hundred species of bacteria. Each tooth is its own ecosystem.

Together, all of the bacteria in the body would be the size of a large liver, and in many ways, scientists say, the microbiome behaves as another organ in the human body.

Each of our bodies has its own unique microbiome, cultivated from birth and built from our genes and our diet, nurtured by our exposure to a family dog or cat, by how much dirt we ate out of the sandbox and the antibiotics we've taken for ear infections or strep throat.

Like this comment
Posted by chris
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 9, 2012 at 9:16 am

At long last, we will be catching up to what Europeans have been doing for years. It's easy, and it's environmentally sound. You can bring recyclable bags to the check-out stand, or you can wheel your groceries to your car and place them in plastic crates that can be stored flat. No need for paper!

Like this comment
Posted by No faqn of the Board of Stupidvisors
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 9, 2012 at 3:26 pm

These 5 megalomaniacs just love telling us how to live our lives. We put them in office to work for us and instead they want to control our lives. So they inconvenience us and charge us for making our lives more difficult.

All that is needed is to require all supermarkets and convenience stores to use biodegradable bags and nothing more. Where do the Board of Stupidvisors get off telling retail stores that they have to charge for bags? It is none of the stupidvisors business. The decision whether to charge should left to the retail outlets. When government encroaches on businesses we have creeping socialism.

It would behoove all the cities in the Peninsula to reject this irrational ordinance and send a message to the County that the Cities are quite capable of making their own ordinances and we don't need the County to pressure the Cities. Back off Stupidvisors!

There is a problem using non-biodegradable bags and to respect the environment and each cty should pass ordinances to address the Problem.

My suggestion for an ordinance would be "All grocery stores and convenience outlets shall only offer their customers biodegradable bags". Nothing should be mention about the composition of the bags or whether the retail establishments should charge for these bags.

Like this comment
Posted by Armand
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm

@ chris. Most urban Europeans don't have cars. The well-to-do, yes. They can afford parking.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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