Editorial: Plastic bag ban is not a simple issue

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

Proceed, but make sure to get it right. That should be the mind-set of Sacramento City Council members as they consider a possible ban on plastic bags.

It's certainly better for the environment if we use fewer plastic bags, especially the thin ones favored by grocery stores. They are not biodegradable and less than 5 percent are recycled, the state estimates. Sacramento is among the minority of cities that try to recycle them, but bags continually get caught in sorting equipment.

Many bags litter streets, clog storm drains or are blown into trees. They foul beaches and get into streams, rivers and the ocean, where animals are harmed by ingesting them.

Any ban, however, should not overly burden consumers or small businesses.

Today, the council's Law and Legislation Committee kicks off the debate. City staffers plan to consult with environmental advocates, business groups and grocery chains before drafting a proposed ordinance that wouldn't go before the full council for two months, maybe longer. As the staff report makes clear, there are many issues to sort through.

Which types of stores would be under the ban? If there's a minimum size, should it be measured by sales or square footage?

Councilman Steve Cohn, who with Kevin McCarty has been working with Environment California on the issue, told The Bee's editorial board they would prefer to have the ban cover big retailers such as CVS, Target and Wal-Mart as well as grocery chains such as Safeway and Raley's. "Mom-and-pop" stores would not be included, nor would restaurants or department stores, at least at the start.

To encourage shoppers to switch to reusable bags instead of paper bags, which pose their own environmental problems, how much should stores be able to collect for paper bags?

Other local governments allow stores to charge 5 to 25 cents per bag, with most at 10 cents. A new ordinance in Los Angeles County is being challenged under Proposition 26, with opponents arguing that the fee is more than the actual cost of the paper bag so it requires approval by two-thirds of voters.

To fight bans, plastic industry groups have also been abusing the California Environmental Quality Act, claiming that local governments haven't done enough analysis on whether pushing people to use paper or reusable bags is actually worse for the environment.

The last thing Sacramento City Hall should want is to end up in long, costly litigation.

The CEQA process is projected to cost $20,000, far less than initially thought. That cuts the total implementation cost to the city to $120,000 to $140,000. The price tag was also reduced by ditching a proposed giveaway of 50,000 reusable bags at a cost of $50,000 to $100,000. Grocers may hand out their own reusable bags for marketing, the city says.

Sacramento can learn lessons from the more than 60 cities and counties that have passed bans in the last two years. In San Jose, which has done the most complete analysis, there was a large reduction in plastic bag pollution.

Environmentalists face an uphill battle for a statewide law in the Legislature, so a ban in the state capital would be a symbolic victory – if it is done right.

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