Editorial: A chance to 'think outside the bag' | April 9, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 9, 2008

Editorial: A chance to 'think outside the bag'

Grocers' initiative for a comprehensive, citywide policy on plastic vs. paper vs. cloth bags makes sense, both locally and globally

It is rare when merchants faced with a proposed new regulation come back with more sweeping alternative.

Such was the case last week when a group of local grocery store and pharmacy representatives said Palo Alto just isn't going far enough with a simple ban on plastic bags — scheduled to take effect April 28. The comments emerged at a meeting convened by the Chamber of Commerce, characterized as "historic" by Chamber CEO Sandra Lonnquist. She is organizing a task force on the issue, scheduled to meet May 9.

Merchants suggested that a citywide ban on plastic bags be part of a comprehensive program that would include a charge for paper bags combined with an intense effort to shift people to cloth or other reusable bags. It would also apply to all retail businesses in town, not just the 13 groceries and pharmacies affected by the current plan.

Some proposed that the paper-bag fee could be used to buy reusable bags, or go to schools or environmental programs.

The city has already launched a push to get people to shift to cloth bags, featured on the city's Web site as part of Earth Month efforts to raise environmental consciousness even further in a community long known for resembling Emerald City.

There is no question that widespread use of plastic bags has become a worldwide environmental problem, adding to landfill volumes, threatening sea life and littering the landscape.

The problem for grocers under the proposed plastic-bag ban is that paper bags cost about 10 times more than plastic bags. So there would be a surge in use of paper bags, as a Mollie Stone's representative noted based on experience in San Francisco, where plastic bags were banned last year. Biodegradable, cornstarch-based bags are about as expensive as paper, but a side-effect concern is that widespread use would further compete with corn as a food crop, already impacted by the demand for ethanol for a fuel additive.

The counter-proposal from the merchants caught Phil Bobel, the city's environmental-compliance manager, by surprise. Initially skeptical, he was reluctant to modify the proposed plastic-bag-ban schedule, adding he envisioned a phased-in approach to a broader program. But Bobel shifted after being assured the alternative is not a delaying tactic.

"We're not looking to stall. We'll get to work tomorrow," Safeway representative Dan Conway, director of state and local government relations, declared. A fee on paper bags "would literally solve the problem of single-use bags," he said.

"You would see the swiftest and most dramatic decline in single-use bags in the entire country, hands down."

Bobel said if there is a commitment from merchants he would take the broader approach back to upper management and postpone the proposed ban until next fall to allow time for the new plan to be developed. "This has been great," he said of the energy and interest expressed at the meeting.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive. Pharmacy representatives expressed doubt their customers would happily accept a fee, and a Whole Foods Market representative Phil Lonardo said he didn't want to burden his customers with a fee even though Whole Foods strongly supports use of reusable bags.

But Tim James of the California Grocers Association said allowing consumers to use plastic bags at some stores but not others sends a mixed message — and invites opposition. "I would rather spend my time working on that much more comprehensive approach," he said.

John Garcia, of Palo Alto's family-owned JJ&F Market, said he too would oppose a simple ban on plastic bags but would favor a comprehensive plan: "My personal feeling is you just make this big bang and then there's no confusion. Everybody does the same thing, and it's done," Garcia said.

The bottom line is that Palo Alto now faces an opportunity to shift from making an incremental step with limited effectiveness to an overall plan that could make a real statement and motivate change in how people behave on a daily basis.

If successful, such a program could become a model for the nation in much the same way that recycling became widespread after pioneering efforts in Palo Alto showed broad public support 35 years ago.


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