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5 years after Sonoma County ban, new era of plastic bags poses a growing waste problem

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Five years after Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa banned single-use plastic bags at local supermarkets and stores, the much-maligned plastic bag is making a comeback — and reviving some familiar problems.

The new breed of plastic bag, introduced a little more than two years ago, is marketed as a thicker, sturdier sack that can be reused dozens of times, and also is recyclable.

But Sonoma County’s dominant waste hauler doesn’t accept the bag in its recycling stream in part because they jam up its machines. Increasingly, they are ending up in the landfill — resurrecting a problem that the county’s ban and the subsequent statewide prohibition on single-use plastic bags was meant to address.

The wider emergence of the new type of plastic bag — now available at grocers across the county — stems from a state law critics say is riddled with loopholes and exemptions meant to placate the powerful plastics industry.

It could reverse gains made at landfills, as well as beaches and other waterways, where environmental advocates say far less plastic bag waste has clogged the landscape following moves in 2014 by more than 100 cities and counties to ban single-use plastic bags. A statewide prohibition went into effect in 2016.

Fred Stemmler, general manager at Sonoma Marin Recology, the area’s largest waste hauler, said there is still a long way to go to break the public’s dependence on plastics.

“There are certain progresses that have happened but you are essentially having seven decades of use that you have to contend with,” Stemmler said. “Bags are only one component because our overall reliance on plastic products is still growing.”

Compounding the problem, waste experts say, is a decline in statewide recycling rates, which have dropped from 50 percent of all waste discarded by Californians in 2014 to 44 percent in 2016, according to the most recent report by CalRecycle, the state’s solid waste agency.

To meet the statewide recycling goal of 75 percent of waste by 2020, a mark set by outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown last month, more than half of the solid waste currently being tossed out would need to be recycled, reduced or composted, the report stated.

Separately, the state has moved to curb the use of plastic straws, with a new law starting this year that restricts restaurants from giving customers plastic straws unless they ask for one.

The setback on bags has dismayed supporters of California’s zero- waste movement, which seeks to greatly ramp up rates of recycling, reuse and compost of household and commercial waste to limit greenhouse gas emissions and preserve limited landfill capacity. Sebastopol last October became the first Sonoma County city to commit to zero waste by 2030.

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa were among the local governments that in 2014 adopted their own bans before the state acted. Consumers evolved, bringing fabric and synthetic totes or paper bags with them to the store. Merchants adapted, too, charging consumers 10 cents every time they needed a paper bag to cart their purchases home. Many also offered durable synthetic or fabric totes for sale.

In the aftermath of the state ban, however, some retailers — including Safeway and Pacific Market in Santa Rosa, among others — began stocking the new type of plastic bags at checkout stands. Each bag carries a price of at least 10 cents under state law, but stores can charge more.

The bags are exempt from the state’s single-use bag ban because they are thick enough to qualify as reusable. While retailers say they are compostable, the bags often take too long to break down to make for good green waste, said Susan Klassen, executive director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which oversees recycling and compost operations.

The county’s waste haulers stopped taking plastic bags in either recycling or green waste bins — a message they’ve tried repeatedly to get out to curbside customers. Instead, consumers must take them back to retail stores, or to independent recycling centers that accept plastic bags and film packaging. In Santa Rosa there are 39 drop-off locations, including bins at Whole Foods, Target and Safeway, among others.

But the new breed of bags are now ending up in landfills at alarming rates, Klassen said.

“A little over a year ago we realized that they are horrible for recycling machines because they gum up the mechanics. So now the only option consumers have is to take them to a drop-off location where a different agency handles them,” she said. “It is completely on the individual now.”

Stemmler’s recycling team at Recology routinely runs into issues caused by the bags, including breakdowns in their sorting machinery that leave them unable to operate for days.

“After thousands of times of plastic bags running through it will start accumulating and we have to shut the system down and cut them out,” Stemmler said.

Local solid waste experts say they have seen the environmental payoff of Sonoma County’s 2014 bag ban, in less plastic waste strewn about the landscape.

“What I find especially telling is when I talk to folks doing creek cleanups and they mention there is a noticeable lack of plastic bags that they are picking up now, which happened fairly quickly after the ban went into effect,” said Patrick Carter, a former Waste Management Agency executive director who helped lead the push for the local measure. “So in that respect it has a great effect.”

But with the wider introduction of the new bags, any progress could be short-lived, officials say.

“If people don’t make the effort to go drop these bags off at certain locations then they go to landfills and this actually doesn’t become an improvement at all,” said Leslie Lukacs, zero waste director at SCS Engineers, a leading solid waste and environmental consulting firm with offices in Sonoma County.

On the enforcement side, Carter said while he was at the helm of the Waste Management Agency most businesses took it upon themselves to meet the state’s plastic bag regulations. Violations were rare in the county, he said.

The Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Heal The Bay was one of the strongest advocates for the statewide ban. The Legislature passed a bill in 2014 but the plastics industry put up a fight. Voters upheld the law two years later.

Water quality scientist Annelisa Moe, who was born and raised in Petaluma, said there has been a 70 percent reduction in plastic bags across the state since 2014.

“Over 13 billion plastic bags were found on the beaches in the state before the ban went into effect,” Moe said. “Which if you think about that, then a 70 percent reduction is huge.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.