Davis: Sack plastic bags in 2014

Published: Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013 - 10:50 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 13, 2013 - 8:50 am

Paper or plastic? The question could soon become a thing of the past in Davis where city leaders are calling for a ban on plastic, single-use carryout bags starting next year.

The ban would affect 475 retail businesses in Davis, from markets to restaurants starting in July 2014. The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to direct staffers to return with an ordinance that bars retailers from handing out the bags and imposes a 10-cent charge for store-offered reusable bags. The statute could come back to council as soon as early October.

Davis leaders and residents have been pushing for a plastic bag ban since a December 2011 council resolution to combat waste in the city, part of Davis’ plan to eliminate waste by the end of the decade.

If passed, Davis would join more than 80 jurisdictions across the state where bans are in place, including Los Angeles County and much of the San Francisco Bay Area, according to Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste. On Wednesday, a San Diego City Council committee voted to have staffers draw up an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in that city, according to news reports.

Eliminating single-use plastic bags is “one part of the plan to take Davis to zero waste by 2020,” said Alan Pryor, chairman of the city’s Natural Resources Committee, which recommended a draft ordinance on the issue earlier this summer. Other components will include requiring containers, cups and utensils to be made of compostable materials, Pryor said.

“It’s a litter problem in our parks, under bushes,” Pryor said of the plastic bags. It’s also a costly one. Pryor said the city spends about $34,000 a year to hire people to pick up the bags from its transfer station (so they don’t go into landfills) as well as “hundreds of hours in community volunteer time to pick up thousands of bags” each year from nearby farmland and ecologically sensitive local sloughs.

“We have to stop growing waste,” Pryor said. “We have to change the way we’re doing things.”

Momentum to do away with plastic bags has grown in Davis and statewide in recent years. Inland communities are frustrated by the flyaway litter the bags create, coastal communities are concerned about the consequences for marine life. Recycling advocates like Californians Against Waste say the bags clog landfills, foul machinery, are costly to remove and can scarcely be called biodegradable.

But Davis’ proposed ordinance has angered the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which called on Davis leaders Tuesday to “discontinue all work” on the issue unless the governor signs statewide plastic bag regulation into law.

The chamber says it agrees plastic bag use and production is unsustainable and that shifting to reusable bags is environmentally and economically “the best alternative to single-use carryout bags.” However, the group blasts talk of a municipal plastic bag ban as a waste of the city’s energy and resources. They say Davis leaders have been unduly influenced by other cities’ actions on the issue and by a “small handful of vocal activists at City Council meetings.”

“We do not believe that precious city resources should continue to be wasted on this topic,” a statement by the chamber read.

A few blocks away from the chamber’s offices, Eric Stromberg, general manager of Davis Food Co-op, said his store has never offered single-use bags in its 41-year history and has significantly decreased its use of paper bags. Stromberg insists that customers’ changing habits and their growing environmental awareness make a ban on plastic bags easier for retailers.

“Businesses can easily thrive without plastic bags. Members encouraged us to reduce paper bags at checkout. Once you engage the public, it’s better for all of us,” Stromberg said. “Most people want to do small things that make a difference. This is an easy, everyday choice and we decided we want to go down that path.”

Still, Stromberg wondered about the ordinance’s potential effect on small businesses and, especially, restaurants for whom carryout is a large part of their business.

“I hope (the city) will allow enough time for small businesses to move their stock (of plastic bags),” he said.

Pryor said smaller retailers could possibly get an additional year to comply under the ordinance, giving them time to educate customers, draw down existing plastic stock and find competitive prices on new greener supplies.

That likely won’t matter for Ramiro Martinez. He has owned El Mariachi Taqueria at 4th and G streets in downtown Davis for nearly a dozen years. Martinez supports the proposed ordinance, but is already considering the costs of complying with the new city code – and the price increases he anticipates passing on to his customers.

“It’s a heads-up, but I will still have to spend. I might as well raise my prices now,” he said with a small laugh.

Martinez has had a taste of what’s to come. His restaurant works the city’s farmers’ markets where only recyclable, compostable materials are allowed. He estimates costs for the more ecologically friendly materials are roughly double that of the conventional plastic products.

“The materials are very expensive,” Martinez said, taking a short break from the kitchen Thursday afternoon. “If we don’t adjust prices for the food, it’s just another thing that the business will suffer. As a business owner, (prices) can’t stay low. We’ll have to raise our prices. It is tough, but we also understand the city wants to offer a better environment.”

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

Read more articles by Darrell Smith

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