News

Palo Alto sued over plastic-bag ban

Lawsuit claims city failed to conduct adequate environmental analysis; calls for new ordinance to be invalidated

Palo Alto's crusade against plastic bags faced its first legal challenge Tuesday, when a coalition of groups filed a lawsuit claiming that the city acted too rashly when it banned plastic bags from local grocery stores last month.

The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday by a coalition led by the group SaveThePlasticBag.com , claims the city violated California law when it chose not to conduct a detailed Environmental Impact Report before it adopted an ordinance on March 16 banning plastic bags from grocery stores. Palo Alto's ban is slated to take effect Sept. 18.

Stephen Joseph, an attorney representing the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, argues in the lawsuit the city's ordinance will force shoppers to shift to paper bags and that the city has failed to adequately consider the environmental impacts of this shift. The basis for the plastic-bag ban, the suit argues, is rooted in misleading information spread by "anti-plastic bag activists."

"In their zeal to eliminate plastic bags, anti-plastic bag activists and the City and Council have willfully ignored and brushed aside the environmental impacts caused by increasing the use of paper," the complaint states.

Joseph had previously voiced these concerns at public hearings before the ordinance was adopted and threatened to sue the city should it proceed. The city's environmental study acknowledged short-term environmental impacts from increased paper-bag usage, but emphasized the city's aggressive efforts to promote reusable bags as an effective way to mitigate these impacts.

"What we object to is the misinformation that is being spread about plastic bags, as well as about paper bags and reusable bags," Joseph told the Weekly. "From the point of view of environmental truth, there should be a proper objective analysis or the merits of plastic, paper and reusable bags."

Palo Alto's ordinance, the suit argues, should be nullified. Joseph's group successfully used a similar argument in its lawsuit against the City of Manhattan Beach, which banned plastic bags from stores last year. In February, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that Manhattan Beach should have conducted the environmental study and invalidated the ordinance. Manhattan Beach is currently appealing that ruling.

Beside SaveThePlasticBag.com, petitioners listed in the complaint include several plastic-bag manufacturers, a Los Angeles County-based maker of reusable bags, and several individuals whom the complaint says have no financial interests in the plastic-bag debate.

"All of petitioner's members identified above are concerned about the environmental misinformation being disseminated about plastic bags because such misinformation is harmful to the environment and contrary to the public interest," the lawsuit states. "They firmly believe that a switch to paper bags will cause environmental damage that should be avoided."

Tuesday's lawsuit didn't come as a surprise to Palo Alto officials. Even before the City Council adopted the ordinance on March 16 by an 8-1 vote (with John Barton dissenting), council members acknowledged that a lawsuit from plastic-bag proponents is all but inevitable. They argued, however, that the city should proceed with the ban anyway, largely to reduce environmental impact.

Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, a proponent of the bag ban, reaffirmed the city's position Tuesday. The lawsuitdoesn't change her belief that passing the ordinance was the right move, she said.

"As a city, we're not surprised that this lawsuit did happen," Kishimoto said. "Our basic stance is that you can't let the threat of a lawsuit stop you from doing the right thing."

City officials have also argued that Palo Alto has a stronger case than Manhattan Beach did because the city provided a "negative mitigated declaration" -- an environmental-impact study that is less comprehensive than an Environmental Impact Report but more detailed than the "negative declaration" that Manhattan Beach supplied before proceeding with its ordinance.

Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin said Tuesday the city has a very strong case against the new (but largely expected) legal challenge. The city's negative mitigated declaration already addressed the issues Joseph brought up, Larkin said.

"We did look at the paper bags, and we did look specifically at some of the studies that Mr. Joseph has mentioned in his comments," Larkin said. "All those issues he raised initially -- we responded to them."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cindy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 21, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Stores should encourage customers to bring their own bags. Didn't Safeway used to give a discount to customers who brought their own bags? What happened to that? All stores should do that. Most of those store bags go straight into the trash. If stores are so concerned about the cost of bags, they should be happy when customers bring their own.

Stores should also use low-waste packaging for their products. Often when I buy a product at Walmart of Frys or Costco, most of the product is packaging; either a huge cardboard box or a heavy plastic shell that goes straight into the trash. Stores could help reduce waste by using much simpler packaging.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 21, 2009 at 5:58 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
I think this council is so fixated on "enviromental" consciousness, that they may have even violated the law.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 21, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Or rather, I should add that the council probably knew the lawsuit was coming, but was willing to risk our dwindling city budget to set a new precedent. Just another example of wasteful spending for "green" purposes. If we had ooodles of money in the city coffers, maybe we could afford taking on lawsuits, but now? When the economy is so bad that we have to make cuts to the police and fire departments? Yet the city is willing to spend tens of thousands on legal fees for a green agenda. Irresponsible and misplaced priorities, IMO.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 21, 2009 at 6:12 pm

"Tuesday's lawsuit didn't come as a surprise to Palo Alto officials. Even before the City Council adopted the ordinance on March 16 by an 8-1 vote (with John Barton dissenting), council members acknowledged that a lawsuit from plastic-bag proponents is all but inevitable"

OK, folks here we go, once again. The greenies are going to cost us who knows how many thousands of dollars (or is it millions of dollars?) in order to defend this suit. Beam me up Scottie!!

Please tell me who is going to pay for this? Maybe I have been dreaming, but I could swear that we have budget deficit. Am I crazy?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cindy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 21, 2009 at 6:31 pm

The pro-pollution lobby is wasting this money. They didn't have to do this. Is this just politics to them?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 21, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Cindy, please explain what you mean by the "pro-pollution lobby". One of the single best things we can do to lower CO2 emmissions is to build nuclear power plants. Do you support nuclear power plants, Cindy, or are you part of the pro-pollution lobby?

Plastic bags are such a small thing to waste our lawsuit dollars on.
If we need to fund lawsuits, we should be opposing those who are preventing us from buying nuclear power as part of our PA energy mix.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2009 at 7:43 pm

City council votes for a plastic bag ban knowing that a lawsuit will be a result - then is raising the utility rates, wants to pass a business license tax, and cut services. Just who is the city council suppose to be representing - residents of Palo Alto or fringe environmental causes?

Another example: rather than work with Stanford on the hospital upgrade & shopping center expansion, the council demands Stanford provide subsidized housing. Net result loss of potential sales tax revenue & hotel taxes. Just who is the city council representing - residents of Palo Alto or affordable housing advocates?

Yet another example: city council endorses the high speed rail, and doesn't join the lawsuit filed by Menlo Park & Atherton. Now Palo Alto is looking at a 15 foot high wall running the length of the city, some residents will have their property taken away, ... Just who is the city council representing - residents of Palo Alto or mass transit advocates?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Oh, this is a timely one, and exemplifies so much the hypocrisy and "lock step" thinking of the left, and how they get exploited on their "fads" by smart capitalists every time.

Cindy said: "Didn't Safeway used to give a discount to customers who brought their own bags?"

Yeah, that makes business sense, but now "reusable bags" are the fad and you have to pay for them. So, the stores are winners both ways. They save by not providing bags, and charge for the advertising "branded" ones they sell, and all this profit and free advertising in the name of "saving the earth"....

Make a need and fill it, Yep, that is what smart capitalists are good at and what fad driven "useful idiots" are always suckers for.

Now, what's my point in this? Well, one might justify reusable recyclable shopping bags that are made from bio-degradable materials, but (W)hole Foods will sell you one, with their advertisement branding, and it's made out of plastic!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 21, 2009 at 7:51 pm

The truth is, the "green" law firms, as well as some "pro-pollution" law firms in disguise, lobbied the City, and other cities, to ban plastic bags. This is their way to "create jobs", from both sides, for themselves, around the country.

Our city was foolish enough to take the bait.

It's not surprising though, given their handling of the high speed rail, the Stanford shopping center proposal, so-called historical buildings, and a host of other things.

Palo Alto, a city of residence for some of the smartest people in the world, has a city council of abysmal intelligence.



 +   Like this comment
Posted by SaveThePlasticBag.com
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 21, 2009 at 7:52 pm

A copy of the lawsuit can be found at:

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Savetheplasticbag is funded by the companies that make the plastic bags, no surprise.

I don't understand what's so hard about using a cloth bag. From the reactions I've seen here and on other similar topics on this forum, you'd think people were being asked to do something difficult.

I've got a couple of cloth bage I've used for years that I keep in my trunk. They've repaid their modest cost many times. I also use them to tote other objects when needed.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2009 at 9:31 pm

I have my own reusable bags which I use but I think the ban is wrong for so many reasons. I think the lawsuit is just another win/win for the lawyers and lose/lose for Palo Altans.

I think this city is being run by a group of incredibly selfish individuals who are out to give themselves a political resume to get them further in their political careers. They are not interested in Palo Alto in the slightest, just giving themselves something to spout about when they stand for some other higher office in the future.

Please can we get a few sensible people who are willing to run this city to stand for election next time.



 +   Like this comment
Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 21, 2009 at 10:09 pm

The reason that the council was mislead to BAN plastic bags, rather than taxing plastic bags, like the CRV tax on plastic bottles, is precisely to create confrontation.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by none-left
a resident of University South
on Apr 21, 2009 at 10:12 pm

I don't know why they're bothering to sue. The council is almost finished chasing all the grocery stores out of palo alto anyway...



 +   Like this comment
Posted by land of the free
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 21, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Great, now we're not allowed to have propane, plastic bags, or leaf blowers. That completely screws up my plan for escaping from this crazy town in a homemade hot air balloon.

I guess i'll think up a new plan while i relax by the warm glow of the fireplace tonight. Oh wait, not allowed to burn wood tonight.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 3:39 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

As in all council deliberations the convenience of the individual is not considered. To some of us of reduced physical capacity, the standard paper or reusable bag is a poor substitute for the plastic bag in handling ease. Without plastic I will accept the help out offer.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2009 at 10:01 am

Just put a "CRV" on the plastic bags. Plastic bags would be available to those who must have them....for a small fee.

This is the case in Europe. You pay a few pennies for plastic. SURPRISE...the fee works. People learn to bring their own cloth bags.

End of story, end of whining.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by another neighbor
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 11:18 am

"neighbor" is absolutely right. I also travel to Europe, and have observed that having to pay extra for plastic bags is definitely a deterrent. Many, many people prefer to bring their own bags, often re-using plastic ones again and again, often with paper ones inside to strengthen them, making them last much longer. Many people bring cloth or basket-weave bags. A few pay the extra for a new plastic one
A sensible and non-draconian solution.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Those of you who oppose the ban should get a look at that large mass of plastic, mostly bags. See below:

In reality, the rogue bag would float into a sewer, follow the storm drain to the ocean, then make its way to the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch - a heap of debris floating in the Pacific that's twice the size of Texas, according to marine biologists.

The enormous stew of trash - which consists of 80 percent plastics and weighs some 3.5 million tons, say oceanographers - floats where few people ever travel, in a no-man's land between San Francisco and Hawaii.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by ha ha ha
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 22, 2009 at 1:16 pm

I wish they would just charge for plastic bags, I use them for my trash...

I want to thank the guy who made the comment about escaping the city in a homemade hot air balloon... that made me laugh out loud!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Sylvia, if you investigate, you would see that the garbage in the pacific is not in fact plastic bags. There are many other much bigger sources of plastic, including lids and straws, plastic bottles, food packaging, etc. Part of the knee-jerk misguidedness of the bag ban is that it assumes they are the biggest part of various problems (global warming, landfill usage, ocean garbage patch, sea life endangerment, litter) - it is just not true.

If you drive around and look at litter in Palo Alto and surrounding towns, you will see that single use beverage cups and bottles generate probably a majority of what you see on the roadside. Any one up for banning to-go coffee and drink cups?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Palo Alto files a lawsuit to keep plastic bags/waste -- interesting move on Earth Day.

Some PA writers are so illogical and selfish. They really make the community look foolish.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Re the ban, Peter says "you'd think people were being asked to do something difficult". We are not being "asked". We are being "told". There is a difference: it's called "principle".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2009 at 6:50 pm


CA State law prohibits charging a fee for plastic bags, that's why governments have moved to the bans. A few years ago there was State legislation introduced to put a fee on plastic bags, but the plastics lobby was successful in reducing the bill to require grocery stores to place bins at stores to recycle the bags instead. The law was AB2449.

Note that plastic bags don't get recycled into more bags, they get recycled into stuff like plastic lumber which itself is not recyclable.

As for CRVs- the deposit must be high enough in order to be effective. for example, Californians bought 21.9 BILLION carbonated and non-carbonated drinks in aluminum, glass, plastic and bi-metal containers last year, and 14.7 BILLION of those containers were recycled. 7.2 BILLION (yes BILLION) were LANDFILLED. Billions of bottles and cans are being landfilled even after the deposit was increased to $.05 for small containers and $.10 for larger (greater than 20oz) containers. Web Link



RE:"Just put a "CRV" on the plastic bags. Plastic bags would be available to those who must have them....for a small fee.

This is the case in Europe. You pay a few pennies for plastic. SURPRISE...the fee works. People learn to bring their own cloth bags.

End of story, end of whining."


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Me Too,

"If you drive around and look at litter in Palo Alto and surrounding towns, you will see that single use beverage cups and bottles generate probably a majority of what you see on the roadside. Any one up for banning to-go coffee and drink cups?"

Ban them, no, but put some teeth into littering, and especially, graffiti laws.

First offense, 1000 hours of community service cleaning litter or graffiti. (1000 hours ~= 40/week for 6 months)

Second offense, 1 to 5 in State Pen as a Felony.

Third offense, Well, 3 strikes and you're out would work well here.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

What is not forbidden is mandatory. There is a word for that that I am not allowed to use here.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Save The Plastic Bag
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 22, 2009 at 8:54 pm

To read about the Great Pacific garbage patch (known as the "Gyre") click here:

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 9:45 pm

Well, at least the discussion here focuses on what the bag ban really amounts to - it is a litter control law. It is not global warming, not the sea life, not landfill space, etc. Litter is unpleasant yes and I am deeply against it - but banning outright something useful like a plastic shopping bag seems both a very narrow "solution" and a very odd priority for the city to take on. Is plastic shopping bag litter really one of the big problems facing Palo Alto right now? Is this what the city and its staff should really be spending time on?

Ideology seems to trump practical issues on an every day basis here.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Annette:
"CA State law prohibits charging a fee for plastic bags, that's why governments have moved to the bans."

Does that just apply to grocery stores? I thought IKEA now charges a fee for a plastic bag.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 22, 2009 at 10:10 pm

It costs far more energy and generates far more pollution to produce one paper bag than one plastic bag. So why not ban paper bag too?

The application of CRV is to encourage recycling, as well as to use the extra funds to offset the damage generated by non-recycled objects. It is not designed with the expectation of 100% recycling, just like cigarette tax is not aimed to completely eliminate smoking.

Look at what the city council has done recently:

* Unanimous support for High Speed Rail
* Launch new business license tax
* Ban plastic bags
* Force Stanford to withdraw shopping center expansion
* Excessive fine for missing alarm registration renewal

It's quite a record.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Apr 23, 2009 at 10:00 am

More attention to the plastic bag discussion than to REAL problems facing us...the economy, war, terrorism. What whining.

Is the plastic bag issue so important in your life? Get over it.

Keep reusable cloth bags in your trunk. They are widely available. Yesterday, Target was giving them away to support Earth Day.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by PA resident
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Apr 23, 2009 at 11:31 am


It's not the lawmakers, the city council, or the stores.

If I act consistently responsible and bring my own reusable bag
every time;

no lawsuit for the council, no cost to taxpayers
less harm to wildlife and the earth
great self esteem and teaching for the next generation

take charge Palo Alto, bring your own cloth bag, everytime!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 23, 2009 at 12:08 pm

For all those do-gooders, there is nothing to prevent you bringing your own bags. But to force others to be as puritanical as you is not appropriate. I once saw an old man shopping with his own bags. Yet he lighted up a cigarette in the parking lot. We live in a free society.

Secondly, what the city council has done is to drive people away from shopping in Palo Alto, and hence reduce city's revenue stream.

Shopping is frequently a spontaneous behavior. Even those good people, once they realized that "OMG, I forget my bags at home", will likely drive a little further to shop where plastic bags are supplied, rather than going back home to get the bags. Frustration will build up.

Time and convenience is important. People are busy with their lives and work. Before long you will see Palo Altans, except retired and home moms with lots of free time, will habitually shop more in Mountain View or other cities, on their way back home, or to their offices, because of the bags.

And I bet those who plan to open shops in Palo Alto will also think a bit harder to evaluate the profit/loss situation.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Concerned Citizen
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 23, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Honestly-- hundreds of thousands of marine mamals die every year when they ingest plastics that they mistake for food. Plastic bottles, plastic bags, whatever... we use too much of them. People have to make the decision to stop. Cities try- and look what happens. Plastic bags catch air and fly into our waterways- and we use billions upon billions of them in the US every year. Shame on those who want to sue cities for trying to make a difference. Other countries have banned the bags, and soon the little money hungry lawyers will have no say over our US President. And for those of you who are too lazy to bring your own frickin bag into the store- shame on you too. Recycle your plastic bags and reuse a nice reusable bag- otherwise, you're supporting the money hungry plastic bag industry that sues little cities who are trying to help so that they can keep their millions. What blinds you? People who try to save the environment or people who want money?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jb
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 23, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Why charge for a plastic bag (or a paper one? Been to Ikea lately. Buying a bag doesn't cut into their traffic.)

Why not just charge for a reusable, recyclable cloth or string bag? That way merchants get reusable bags into the hands of those who have refused to buy them, thinking it is their god-given right to be offered their purchase in a free bag, plastic or paper.

Paper bags exact a cost on the environment too. Trees can be farmed to make the bags (tissue, tp, etc.) it is true. But paper forests are not healthy forests. They are planted on a grid to facilitate mechanical harvest. Animals won't live in them because there is no cover. Wherever they stand they can be seen through the rows and columns of trees. No underbrush allowed because it uses up nutrients meant for growing woodpulp and increases fire danger.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 24, 2009 at 7:48 am

We must realize the difference between charging/taxing from banning. Banning plastic bags is, in spirit, the same as stoning people to death for adultery. It is wrong. It is the Talibanization of Palo Alto.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ellen
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2009 at 2:17 pm

It's great to see the plastic bag lobby using lawsuits to intimidate and prevent communities from making their own decisions. I wonder how much taxpayer money is being wasted on defending these lawsuits. With all that money, we could probably just buy everyone reusable bags!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 24, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Plastic bags are toxic for the environment! Nobody re-uses all of them because they only put 3 or 4 items in each (often double-bagged) and you end up with 10-20 bags from one shopping trip and if you save them (which most people don't) you would see what a big mound it creates. It's just a big environmental mess. Stop trying to fight progress. It is time to say goodbye to the plastic bag.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2009 at 3:48 pm

RE: ""CA State law prohibits charging a fee for plastic bags, that's why governments have moved to the bans."

Does that just apply to grocery stores? I thought IKEA now charges a fee for a plastic bag."

Response: Stores can initiate charging a fee on paper or plastic; however, State law prohibits local government from requiring stores to charge a fee for plastic (State law applies to plastic only and local government can require stores to charge for paper.) That is why we are starting to see local governments go for a ban on plastic and fee on paper if they are taking a stance on single-use carryout bags).

IKEAs decision to charge for plastic bags is allowed because it was a decision made by the store.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Degradablebags
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 30, 2009 at 3:56 am

Whats all the fuss ?
I HAVE the Degradable T shirt bags that will be needed !
6 - 9 months to biodegrade, only 2.5 cents per bag.
It's the right thing to do.
degradablebags atgmaildotcom


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jen
a resident of another community
on May 2, 2009 at 2:46 pm

I've always had this vision of Palo Alto as being filled with uber-intelligent, forward-thinking residents, and I constantly look at that town with envy. I'm shocked at all the people condemning the city council for this decision. So they should have NOT passed the ban, because of the possibility of a lawsuit....by a group actually CALLED "Save the Plastic Bag"??? Holy wowza, I'm just blown away. I typically find it hilarious when my midwestern relatives link any environmental issue to evil, because they see it as a "liberal, Democrat, pinko, commie, etc, etc, etc" issue. But WHAT is the deal with Palo Alto???? Environment = Evil, because the Democrats have chosen to try to champion the cause? Weird. I'm pretty sure we all live on the same planet. (Though, I am questioning that more and more.) I have several Republican friends who are about as green as anyone I know. I guess they see the bigger picture. And NONE of them use paper OR plastic bags. We've all been bringing our own reusable bags to every store for nearly 2 years. It really doesn't have anything to do with policial party. Or it SHOULDN'T anyway.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jim Barbera
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 25, 2009 at 10:08 pm

This is bad news for our family as our kitchen garbage can accepts grocery bags perfectly. We have been re-using plastic grocery bags for over 12 years for this purpose. Now we'll have to buy bags for our kitchen trash. All other plastic film was brought to the recycling center. Now it's accepted in curbside pic up.


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