Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 15, 2013

Palo Alto to ban plastic bags at stores, restaurants

City Council votes to ban plastic bags, require a 10-cent charge on paper bags

by Gennady Sheyner

The era of plastic bags is about to come to an end at shops and restaurants throughout Palo Alto after city officials decided Monday night, March 11, to greatly expand the city's existing ban on the notorious creek polluters.

Continuing a trend that the city launched more than three years ago, the City Council voted 5-0 Monday night to extend Palo Alto's existing ban on single-use plastic bags at supermarkets. The new ordinance extends the ban to all other retailers and food establishments. It also requires stores to charge 10 cents per paper bag. Staff will revisit this fee in 18 to 24 months.

In adopting the new ban, Palo Alto is joining a list of about 24 jurisdictions in California that are currently working on some sort of bag restriction. The city emerged as a leader in this field in 2009, when it banned single-use checkout bags from supermarkets despite concerns from some grocers and a lawsuit from the plastic-bag industry. Since 2009, about 65 cities and counties throughout the state have adopted similar ordinances, according to a new staff report. The lawsuit, meanwhile, was settled when the city agreed to conduct an environmental-impact report before adopting any further bans.

The new ban will apply only to check-out bags, not "product bags" that are commonly used for produce and soup containers. The goals of the ban are to reduce plastic-bag pollution in local creeks, baylands and other open spaces; cut back on the number of all bags distributed by local establishments; and promote a "shift toward the use of long-lasting and durable reusable bags by retail customers in Palo Alto," according to a new report from the Public Works Department.

Julie Weiss, an environmental specialist in the Public Works Department, said that while the supermarket ban helped reduce the number of plastic bags in the city, they remain in wide usage. In the last two creek cleanup events, volunteers collected about 150 plastic bags from the creeks, she said.

"We know we have a problem because we're seeing it in our creeks," Weiss said.

The new ban drew a somewhat predictable reaction, with local environmentalists applauding the city and opponents threatening to sue it. The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, the industry group that has sued Palo Alto and other cities in the past, continued to maintain that such bans are illegal because they violate the state's Food Code, which guards health and sanitation. San Francisco withstood a legal challenge from the group when a judge upheld its ban on bags, a decision that the group plans to appeal, according to City Attorney Molly Stump.

The restaurant industry also has some concerns about Palo Alto's new ban. Javier Gonzalez, director of local government affairs for the California Restaurant Association, asked the council to exclude restaurants from the new ordinance. Plastic bags, he said, are better suited than paper bags for many of the containers used by restaurants, he said, and reusable bags can pose a health hazard when customer use them for things other than food.

"Cross-contamination and food-borne illnesses are a major concern and liabilities that our members don't want to take up," Gonzalez said.

But most of the speakers at Monday's meeting were in favor of the ban, characterizing it as an example of good environmental stewardship. Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who has been involved in clean-up events at the San Francisquito Creek since 1991, said he has seen a decline in garbage in the past few years, but plastic waste remains. While these bags are convenient, Drekmeier said, "the problems they cause outweigh the benefits."

"We've made a lot of progress, but we need to take the next step," Drekmeier said.

The new ban will take effect on July 1 for retail establishments and on Nov. 1 for food-service establishments, which includes everything from restaurants and delis to food trucks. In adopting the new ordinance, the council strayed slightly from several staff recommendations. While staff proposed charging 10 cents for a paper bag in the first year and then increasing it to 25 cents, the council decided to leave it at 10 cents for at least 18 to 24 months, after which time the city can reevaluate the pricing.

The council also modified the staff's proposal for the type of bags that qualify as "reusable" so that bags that are small but durable would qualify. Lastly, the council agreed to remove a requirement that reusable bags have labels branding them as ecologically friendly.

This requirement was removed upon request from Apple, which argued that the new environmental logos would tarnish the look of its iconic, draw-string bags, making them less likely to be reused by customers.

"Putting an ugly label on a bag that we worked really hard to make clean and beautiful, and something people want to reuse is really counterproductive," Jason Lundgaard, Apple's manager for state and local government affairs, told the council.

The council was less sympathetic to Gonzalez's request that restaurants be exempt from the new ban. Only Councilwoman Karen Holman was receptive to exempting food-establishment from the ordinance. But she ultimately joined Mayor Greg Scharff, Councilwoman Gail Price and Councilmen Pat Burt and Greg Schmid in voting for the broader ban.

Holman's vote proved key as only five of nine council members were present for the discussion. Marc Berman recused himself from the discussion because of an investment in a company connected to bags. Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Councilman Larry Klein were all absent.

In voting for the ban, Councilman Greg Schmid called plastic bags "a blight" and said it makes sense to "move more strictly against them." Price said the new ordinance shows the city's "commitment to environmental goals and zero waste" and said not adopting such a ban would be "irresponsible."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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