Environment

Get ready to ditch those plastic bags in Sacramento

A large pile of washed-up trash, including old plastic bags, sits alongside the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, Calif. This week, Sacramento will join 145 other communities in California in banning single-use plastic bags from grocery stores, large pharmacies and other retailers.
A large pile of washed-up trash, including old plastic bags, sits alongside the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, Calif. This week, Sacramento will join 145 other communities in California in banning single-use plastic bags from grocery stores, large pharmacies and other retailers. The Associated Press

Grocery clerks in the city of Sacramento will stop asking “paper or plastic?” on Friday. Instead, they’ll ask customers if they’d like to buy some bags.

This week, the city will join 145 other communities in California in banning single-use plastic bags from grocery stores, large pharmacies and other retailers. The city ordinance takes effect even as a statewide ban on the bags remains on hold pending the outcome of a referendum in November.

“A lot of folks still think (the bag ban isn’t) happening because the state law is coming up on the ballot,” said Erin Treadwell, spokeswoman for the city’s Recycling and Solid Waste Division. But it is, she said.

To prepare for the change, city staff members have met with about 100 retailers and contacted hundreds more to answer their questions and urge them to prepare, she said.

The city’s main outreach effort has been to the owners of mom-and-pop convenience stores for whom the bag ban is new, she said. For large chains such as Safeway and Target, the changes are familiar because so many other jurisdictions throughout the state have banned the bags, she said.

At the Raley’s grocery chain, “we wanted to be as proactive as possible,” said spokeswoman Chelsea Minor. Signs posted near cash registers at Raley’s and Bel Air stores in the city of Sacramento have notified customers of the impending switch for weeks and encouraged them to bring their own bags.

Customers who forget will have the option of buying recycled paper bags for 10 cents each, she said. Reusable plastic bags may be another purchase option, she said.

The West Sacramento-based chain has already dealt with plastic bag bans at its Nob Hill Foods stores in Bay Area communities including San Jose, Redwood City and Mountain View, she said.

More than a third of Californians live in areas where single-use bags are outlawed already, including – in the greater Sacramento region – the cities of Davis, Chico, Truckee, Nevada City and South Lake Tahoe.

“We think that’s the way industry is going,” Minor said.

Not everyone is happy with the shift. The city has heard from residents upset because of decades of free grocery bags coming to an end. And the plastic-bag industry has fought to keep its products in stores.

Lee Califf, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group, said earlier this year that “the proposed ordinance in Sacramento wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on the environment” and would enrich grocery chains at the expense of shoppers.

After Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last year outlawing the bags statewide starting in July, manufacturers put up $3 million to gather signatures and place a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to overturn the law.

In response, the Sacramento City Council unanimously approved a ban on single-use plastic bags in late March that will eliminate the bags from checkout counters at all grocery stores, large pharmacies and convenience stores within the city limit.

According to a report compiled by the city staff, retailers hand out nearly 14 million plastic bags in Sacramento every month.

The city accepts the bags under its curbside recycling program, but only about 5 percent end up in residents’ blue bins. Those that do often clog sorting machinery, forcing staff workers to shut down the process about six times per day to remove tangled bags, the city report said.

And because the bags are so light, they drift through the air, snagging on trees and fences, clogging storm drains and eventually polluting rivers and oceans, according to Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento-based group that advocates for bag bans.

“They blow out of trash cans and garbage trucks and even the landfill,” the group’s executive director, Mark Murray, said in a statement earlier this year. “They pollute our parks and rivers and threaten wildlife. And because they never biodegrade, they become a source of permanent litter.”

If the state’s ban is reinstated after the November vote, it would supersede the Sacramento ordinance. But if the state measure fails, Sacramento’s ban would remain intact. (The measures are similar, though the state ban allows stores to offer compostable bags in lieu of plastic bags.)

Treadwell, the city spokeswoman, said residents who reuse plastic grocery bags for other purposes, such as scooping up kitty litter, have complained about the ban. But she said restaurants, hardware stores and others will still be allowed to distribute single-use bags.

“There are going to be plenty of stores that will use them and give them out,” she said. “The goal is to reduce them in the waste stream.”

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

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