Randall Benton / Bee file, 2007

Plastic bag ban could be in Sacramento's future

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 - 5:28 pm

It's an age-old question that could be headed toward oblivion in Sacramento: paper or plastic?

Seeking to join many of their coastal California counterparts, two members of the City Council are advocating for a ban on plastic shopping bags at large stores in the city that sell groceries. That might include not just grocery outlets but also big retailers such as Target, CVS and Wal-Mart.

And like many of the more than 60 local governments around the state that have passed some level of bag regulation in the past two years, the council members are also considering an ordinance that would require stores to charge a nickel or dime for paper shopping bags. That money would go to the stores, not city coffers.

Council members Steve Cohn and Kevin McCarty expect to ask a council subcommittee later this month to direct city staff to draft a plastic bag ordinance. That law could be heard by the City Council as early as this summer.

If they're successful in passing the law, Sacramento would be the largest city in the Central Valley to prohibit plastic bags.

"Sacramento prides itself on being one of the most sustainable cities in California and America," McCarty said. "We want to be a greener city, and I think this is a good issue to explore."

Environmentalists and other supporters of bans argue plastic shopping bags are serious hazards that are clogging rivers and creeks, polluting the oceans and littering our streets. While pushing for laws that prohibit the bags, those groups are also encouraging shoppers to carry reusable shopping bags.

"We have to get out of this disposable world we're living in," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, an advocacy group working with Cohn and McCarty.

Opponents of restrictions argue that 1,900 Californians work in the industry that produces plastic bags and that bans put those jobs at risk.

And a pair of law professors at the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University said a study they did last year found that reusable bags are havens for bacteria and that 5.5 people die each year in San Francisco as a result of food-borne illnesses spread by those bags.

"It's feel-good legislation," said Donna Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, whose organization instead supports more robust plastic bag recycling efforts. "At the same time, it's really going to hurt the lower-income consumers and push people into less environmentally sustainable paper bags and reusable bags."

San Francisco was the first city in the nation to pass a plastic bag ban when, in 2007, it prohibited plastic shopping bags at large grocery stores and chain pharmacies. The law has since been expanded to all retailers.

Beginning this summer, the San Francisco ordinance will also apply to restaurants – something Cohn and McCarty are not considering in Sacramento.

But the Sacramento council members don't want the ban to apply to small grocery stores.

"We're probably not going to have the furthest-reaching ordinance in the state," Cohn said. "But it's a good start."

Many grocery chains have supported the laws, especially when multiple cities in a region adopt the bans at the same time. The California Grocers Association cautioned that some cities with bans have experienced a loss of grocery business when neighboring communities do not have bans.

"When we do see stores that are close to these jurisdictional lines, we are seeing consumers flock to the non-regulated stores," said Tim James, the association's manager of local government relations.

Davis and Chico are moving forward with bans. But other efforts locally have failed to get much traction.

South Lake Tahoe's City Council just balked at a proposed ban. In 2009, then-Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson proposed a ban during a boisterous news conference near the Tower Bridge. Two months later, Dickinson's proposal died when he failed to get a second supervisor to support his motion.

The state also tried to pass a ban, but the law was defeated in the Senate in 2010 under intense pressure from the chemicals industry. A renewed effort to enact a statewide ban was introduced last month by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael. Cohn and McCarty said they would prefer a statewide law, but that Sacramento has enough reasons to stand on its own.

The movement to ban bags has had its share of successes; San Jose officials reported in November they had seen drastic declines in the number of bags found in local creeks and on neighborhood streets since a ban there went into effect in January 2012.

"Initially there was quite a bit of grumbling," said Kerrie Romanow, director of environmental services in San Jose. "We're in our 14th month and now it's just a habit here."

In addition to the environmental impacts, Cohn and McCarty said workers at the city's waste transfer station are forced to shut down their machinery multiple times a day to deal with conveyors clogged by plastic bags. McCarty has also taken to shooting photographs of "urban tumbleweeds" – bags floating in the breeze down city streets.

On a more global scale, environmentalists supporting the Sacramento ordinance said plastic bags are a big contributor to something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of trash in the ocean estimated to be as large as Texas.

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