Opinion

Bag the Plastic

Bag the Plastic

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Plastic bags like this one line Chollas Parkway in Oak Park. The City Council is considering a measure that would stop supermarkets from handing out the bags. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Paper or plastic?

That decades-old question at the grocery checkout counter is often answered these days with a “Neither.  I brought my own.”

fix san diego opinionThat’s a good sign, but it still represents just a fraction of San Diego shoppers.  Most people still rely on retailers to provide the ubiquitous and cheap plastic bags that are so numerous, they are polluting our beaches, littering our streets and landfill, killing marine mammals and wildlife and burdening taxpayers and local  governments.

The proliferation of these bags has driven lawmakers — including those in San Diego — to propose ways to reduce plastic and encourage reusable bags.

Earlier this week, the City Council’s Rules and Economic Development Committee unanimously voted to move forward with a citywide ordinance to reduce single-use plastic shopping bags at grocery stores and other retail outlets, and require that paper and reusable bags are available for sale.

Plastic bag restrictions, combined with nominal fees for paper bags, are potent tools for reducing plastic trash.  Across the state, and around the nation, this type of simple, effective plastic-bag control has been shown to bolster the economy and promote environmental progress.

After years of discussion and delays, now is the time for San Diego to stop simply hoping that people will recycle and reuse, and finally take a stronger leadership role on limiting single-use plastic bags and reducing pollution.

When the city of San Diego held off five years ago on banning plastic bags, it missed a chance to be at the forefront of environmentally responsible lawmaking in California.

By the time the Council committee took up the issue again this fall, more than 80 cities and municipalities in the state had prohibited stores from providing shoppers with plastic bags.

More importantly, during those lost years millions of plastic bags – possibly over a billion – have been distributed in San Diego. With a recycling rate of only 3 percent, those plastic bags have become a costly economic and environmental menace that we can easily do without.

If there has been an upside to the city’s delay, it’s that recent discussions with key stakeholders have produced a more flexible, common-sense ordinance that is supported by business, consumer and environmental groups alike, including the  California Grocers Association, Surfrider Foundation and Coastkeeper San Diego to name a few.

The city’s Environmental Services Department, along with the nonprofit Equinox Center, studied best practices from around the state and country to craft an ordinance that will be phased in over several years, and done in a way that won’t burden our local businesses or our most vulnerable residents.

Under the proposed ordinance, which will undergo an environmental review before final approval by the full Council sometime next year, plastic bags can still be used for meat, produce and prescription medications, as well as by restaurants and dry cleaners. Also, the bag restrictions will not apply to nonprofit stores, large non-food retailers or customers who participate in government food-assistance programs.

A report presented to city leaders this week by the Equinox Center concludes the proposed ordinance will reduce the number of bags used in San Diego by 70 percent. That means of the approximate 500 million bags distributed here annually, about 350 million fewer plastic bags will be used and litter kept out of our parks, canyons, landfills and bays.

Further, the report found that neither retailers nor consumers suffered significant economic damage in the cities and municipalities where bans currently are in effect.

Opponents try to stop plastic bag bans on the grounds that they put the cost on the consumer. But we’re already paying for plastic bags through local taxes to combat litter and clean up trash-clogged waterways, as well as through hidden bag costs added to food and retail prices.

The California Grocers Association supports San Diego’s plastic bag reduction ordinance because it’s the right thing to do for our environment, and reduces costs they otherwise have to pass on. According to the association, stores located in cities that charge bag fees report 90 percent of customers bring their own, a clear win for the environment.

In fact, in addition to reducing the environmental impacts, the plastic bag reduction ordinance will drive demand for reusable bags, and in turn, potentially create new green jobs and increase sales tax revenues for local tax coffers.

The city also can save approximately $160,000 each year in landfill clean-up costs, not including costs for plastic bag litter removal from streets, storm drains, parks and beaches.

With adoption and implementation of a plastic bag ordinance, San Diego is poised to become one of the largest U.S. cities (along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach and Seattle) to take such a positive step toward bettering the environment and saving taxpayers money.

With the exemptions that are a part of this ordinance, along with targeted education and outreach to promote reusable bags, we can ensure we do this in a manner that best enables all of our citizens (including those in underserved communities) to do the right thing for our neighborhoods, local economy and the environment.

It will take San Diego shoppers a while to adopt the habit of carrying reusable totes for their groceries and other purchases. With this new ordinance, they’ll have the option of purchasing a less environmentally damaging alternative for the times they forget.

Cities and even whole nations around the world are doing just fine without the polluting single-use plastic shopping bags, and so can San Diego.

Sherri Lightner is chair of the City Council’s Rules and Economic Development Committee, and council member for District 1. Lightner’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

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26 comments
shawn fox
shawn fox

They hysterical comments are hilarious. I barely ever see plastic grocery bags blowing around the streets. The comment within the article about "littering" the landfill was equally hilarious. After all the landfill is where we put all of our litter! Isn't that where it belongs when we are finished with it? As far as this being an economic boon, I'll believe it when I see it. It seems more like the broken window fallacy to me. It's no big deal; we'll just be producing more polypropylene bags until someone decides to ban them too.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

They hysterical comments are hilarious. I barely ever see plastic grocery bags blowing around the streets. The comment within the article about "littering" the landfill was equally hilarious. After all the landfill is where we put all of our litter! Isn't that where it belongs when we are finished with it? As far as this being an economic boon, I'll believe it when I see it. It seems more like the broken window fallacy to me. It's no big deal; we'll just be producing more polypropylene bags until someone decides to ban them too.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Bioplastics (bioresins) that are compostable are still in the early stages but have the potential to solve this problem and also create a whole new industry while satisfying concerns. Hopefully any ordinance will accommodate an exception for these types of eco-friendly bags. Re-usable bags are gaining in usage but still have the health concerns if not handled(washed) regularly.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/video.cfm?id=bioplastic-the-plastic-wrap-thats-g2012-09-25Bioplastic: The Plastic Wrap That's Good Enough to Eathttp://www.scientificamerican.com/video.cfm?id=bioplastic-the-plastic-wrap-thats-g2012-09-25News videos covering science, health and technology at Sciam.com

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Bioplastics (bioresins) that are compostable are still in the early stages but have the potential to solve this problem and also create a whole new industry while satisfying concerns. Hopefully any ordinance will accommodate an exception for these types of eco-friendly bags. Re-usable bags are gaining in usage but still have the health concerns if not handled(washed) regularly.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/video.cfm?id=bioplastic-the-plastic-wrap-thats-g2012-09-25Bioplastic: The Plastic Wrap That's Good Enough to Eathttp://www.scientificamerican.com/video.cfm?id=bioplastic-the-plastic-wrap-thats-g2012-09-25News videos covering science, health and technology at Sciam.com

Matt Finish
Matt Finish

I support a ban, they are a scourge on society with no real mechanism for enforcement. If you see one on the side of the road, who gets in trouble for it? Nobody. The problem with this legislation though is that it's so watered down it will be ineffective. Can I see your EBT card to prove I don't have to charge you .10 for a bag? Silly. Either everyone is on board, or nobody is. This design-by-committee crap has to stop.

Matt Finish
Matt Finish subscriber

I support a ban, they are a scourge on society with no real mechanism for enforcement. If you see one on the side of the road, who gets in trouble for it? Nobody. The problem with this legislation though is that it's so watered down it will be ineffective. Can I see your EBT card to prove I don't have to charge you .10 for a bag? Silly. Either everyone is on board, or nobody is. This design-by-committee crap has to stop.

Keith Hartz
Keith Hartz

@SherriLightner Infrastructure in shambles; Pensions out of control; Water rates rising; plastic bags; Good to see you & fellow council members tackling the tough issues

seank
seank

I'm all for saving the environment, but I agree with Linda. There will be dog crap all over the city. Only the wealthy will buy "doggie bags" so what the status quo is currently in Ocean Beach will all over the city.

Patrick Flynn
Patrick Flynn

NO! Banning things is not a solution to our problems, educating people to be more responsible is the solution. There is nothing wrong with plastic bags, the problem is that people are irresponsible. Increase the fine for littering and empower lifeguards, City Parks & Rec workers, and other public employees to issue littering citations.

Patrick Flynn
Patrick Flynn subscriber

NO! Banning things is not a solution to our problems, educating people to be more responsible is the solution. There is nothing wrong with plastic bags, the problem is that people are irresponsible. Increase the fine for littering and empower lifeguards, City Parks & Rec workers, and other public employees to issue littering citations.

David Crossley
David Crossley

It appears it is just too difficult to bring the used bags back to the store. I use a few for things around the house--the rest go back to Albertson's, or any other store that is close by with a receptacle for the used bags.

David Crossley
David Crossley subscriber

It appears it is just too difficult to bring the used bags back to the store. I use a few for things around the house--the rest go back to Albertson's, or any other store that is close by with a receptacle for the used bags.

Grammie
Grammie

As the City will be saving so much money with this ordinance, will you now reduce our taxes?

Linda Tegarden
Linda Tegarden

Why is the first solution to every problem to place a ban on it? People do recycle, do use cloth bags...let them; encourage them. That's great! But what about the other uses for the bags we bring home from the supermarket? Specifically I use plastic bags to pick up after my animals. It has taken a really long time, decades in fact, to convince people that they have a responsibility to clean up dog waste from our streets,parks and the other places where people walk their dogs. Imagine what it will be like when there is no more plastic bag stock handy--or if dog owners had to pay for plastic bags at the local Petco...I guarantee you that the piles of poop will be everywhere and it will be far more disturbing that the occasional Von's bag blowing up against a fence along a roadside. You might think this is a silly point...but just wait or go to France and see for yourself what is looming if this foolish regulation passes the full council.

Linda Tegarden
Linda Tegarden subscriber

Why is the first solution to every problem to place a ban on it? People do recycle, do use cloth bags...let them; encourage them. That's great! But what about the other uses for the bags we bring home from the supermarket? Specifically I use plastic bags to pick up after my animals. It has taken a really long time, decades in fact, to convince people that they have a responsibility to clean up dog waste from our streets,parks and the other places where people walk their dogs. Imagine what it will be like when there is no more plastic bag stock handy--or if dog owners had to pay for plastic bags at the local Petco...I guarantee you that the piles of poop will be everywhere and it will be far more disturbing that the occasional Von's bag blowing up against a fence along a roadside. You might think this is a silly point...but just wait or go to France and see for yourself what is looming if this foolish regulation passes the full council.

David Cohen
David Cohen

The broad support for this limited ban is evidence that its time has come. My wife and I bring re-usable, washable cloth bags with us whenever we anticipate that we might be buying things that can fit into them and keep a sack of them in the car. My wife has a thin-fabric bag attached to her purse that folds up to about the size of a D battery. We even find ourselves apologizing when unexpected purchases require some kind of bag from the store clerk. Once one gets accustomed to this reusable bag process, it becomes a very natural part of everyday life.

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

The broad support for this limited ban is evidence that its time has come. My wife and I bring re-usable, washable cloth bags with us whenever we anticipate that we might be buying things that can fit into them and keep a sack of them in the car. My wife has a thin-fabric bag attached to her purse that folds up to about the size of a D battery. We even find ourselves apologizing when unexpected purchases require some kind of bag from the store clerk. Once one gets accustomed to this reusable bag process, it becomes a very natural part of everyday life.

James Weber
James Weber

How many forests will now be destroyed to supply paper bags? How much will greenhouse gases increase? How much will the children suffer?

James Weber
James Weber subscriber

How many forests will now be destroyed to supply paper bags? How much will greenhouse gases increase? How much will the children suffer?

Surfrider San Diego
Surfrider San Diego

Hi Matt, the ordinance is modeled after other ordinances that have been proven successful. One of the primary reasons for the .10 fee is to encourage people to bring a reusable bag. I would recommend reading this recently released report by the Equinox Center on plastic bag bans. It's very comprehensive and balanced.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

Nope, not at all. Why would I want to bring them back to the store? They are reused around the house for small trash cans, or used to collect animal waste and then thrown away.

Janet Shelton
Janet Shelton

I'd love to see a requirement to charge for plastic bags. I do give money back to people who use their own bags, but if people had to pay for what them, usage would go down more. Why have the government require it? Because it is costing tax dollars to clean them up and to deal with damage they cause. Because they end up in the water and kill a huge number of animals. I never accept plastic bags, but I get plenty of them from other sources to use for picking up pet waste. They are not free; they are included in the price of merchandise and when people take them for "utility" use (pet waste, trash bags, etc.), the cost is passed along to all customers.

John Stufflebean
John Stufflebean

Answers: None, not at all, not at all. Why? Bag bans have been implemented in many cities and people respond mostly by bringing reusable bags. This is a better alternative in every way.

Janet Shelton
Janet Shelton subscriber

I'd love to see a requirement to charge for plastic bags. I do give money back to people who use their own bags, but if people had to pay for what them, usage would go down more. Why have the government require it? Because it is costing tax dollars to clean them up and to deal with damage they cause. Because they end up in the water and kill a huge number of animals. I never accept plastic bags, but I get plenty of them from other sources to use for picking up pet waste. They are not free; they are included in the price of merchandise and when people take them for "utility" use (pet waste, trash bags, etc.), the cost is passed along to all customers.