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 to greatly expand the city's existing ban on the notorious creek polluters.
Continuing a trend that the city helped launch more than three years ago, the City Council voted Monday night to extend Palo Alto's existing ban on single-use plastic bags at supermarkets. The ordinance that the council approved by a 5-0 vote Monday extends the ban beyond supermarkets 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.
With its vote, the council certified the environmental impact report and officially adopted an ordinance banning bags from local stores. The goals of the new 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 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 real decline in garbage in the past few years, but plastic waste remains. The bags are particularly easy to spot after major storms, he said. And 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.
Samantha Meyer, a zero-waste program coordinator for Clean Water Action, lauded Palo Alto for being one of the first cities to institute a restriction on plastic bags but noted that the city is now falling behind other California jurisdictions. She also urged the city to proceed with the more expansive ban.
"We need to move away from the single-use lifestyle where people use things once and throw them away," Meyer said.
The new ban would 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.
The bare quorum didn't prove to be an obstacle as all five members agreed that the time is ripe to strike another blow against plastic bags. Councilman Greg Schmid called them "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."
"It's consistent with the values and beliefs that we state and I think we're doing what is the responsible thing to do," Price said.