Plastic bag ban takes effect

One year ago, the Sonoma City Council gave its unanimous support to a countywide ban on plastic bags, joining neighboring cities in an effort to keep the things out of landfills, waterways and, crucially, the Pacific Ocean.

That vote wasn’t the end of the struggle, according to Councilmember Steve Barbose, who represents Sonoma on the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.

“This is something I’ve been pushing along with a number of other people on the Waste Management Agency board for quite some time,” Barbose said Wednesday. “It was a very arduous journey to get the thing finally passed. And it wasn’t for lack of support by the majority of the people on the Waste Management Agency board; it had more to do with the fact we needed a unanimous vote and there were a couple holdout cities.”

Those obstacles were overcome on Feb. 19, when Rohnert Park and other holdouts on the 10-member board joined the majority in approving a new ordinance to prohibit all retail and grocery stores from distributing single-use plastic bags. As for paper bags, they can still be issued at stores, but the new law requires a 10-cent fee for each one. Stores issuing the bags will keep the fee.

Together, advocates said, these measures will encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, thereby reducing the environmental impact.

Patrick Carter, an analyst with the Waste Management Agency who worked extensively on the carryout bag ban, said the new law took effect 30 days after it was passed. But he noted that it won’t be enforced until Sept. 1, to give retailers time to adapt.

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” he said, adding that education through signs, public service announcements and even “bag vendor fairs” should be enough to get the word out.

Should any retailers ignore the new law, they could become subject to an “administrative fine,” Carter said.

“If it comes to that; we are committed to working with people.”

According to the agency’s website, exempted uses of plastic bags include “Bags used for produce, bulk foods and meats, bags used to hold prescription medications from a pharmacy, and bags used to segregate food or merchandise from each other.”

The site also states that in 2008, an estimated 232 million plastic bags were used in Sonoma County alone. “That’s 1.3 plastic bags per Sonoma County resident per day.” (For more information, go to recyclenow.org/reduce/carryout_bag_reduction.asp.)

Carter said the Waste Management Agency has been studying the issue since 2008, producing an environmental impact report in 2012. “And now we’re finally at a place where it’s implementing. So it’s been a long process.”

When the final vote came, he said, each city had the ability to opt out of the ban, and only Santa Rosa did so. However, that city passed its own ordinance, that is identical to the countywide one, and it takes effect at exactly the same time.

Some local markets are well ahead of the curve. In Sonoma Valley, Whole Foods, Sonoma Market and Glen Ellen Market long ago stopped offering plastic bags. Large chains like Safeway still do, but now have half a year to phase them out.

Although local support for the ban has been strong, Carter said, the agency still worried that groups like the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition – an independent Bay Area organization that showed an interest in Sonoma County’s ban but did not participate directly in the debate – could force them to defend themselves legally.

“There’s always the specter of groups that have sued other cities … so that kind of looms over everybody’s head,” he said. “But we never actually were threatened with a lawsuit.”

According to Save The Plastic Bag Coalition’s website, the environmental damage of plastic bags is exaggerated, while banning them increases greenhouse gas emissions due to more reliance on paper bags. Steve Joseph, a San Francisco lawyer and activist who is the driving force behind the group, did not respond to emails seeking comment.