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February 10, 2010 > Commission looks at plastic bags

Commission looks at plastic bags

By Dustin Findley
Photos By Dustin Findley

Some cities of the Bay Area have banned single-use bags from grocery stores. The Recycling & Source Reduction Advisory Commission (RSRAC) and city staff discussed this issue and heard public comments on January 26.

City Council directed staff to review the City of San Jose's Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on plastic bags. According to Kathleen Phalen, Principal Civil Engineer, the EIR should be completed in the Spring.

RSRAC Chair Edward Blake displayed the various plastic bags found in a typical household, including a plastic bag from the grocery store, a paper bag and a reusable fabric bag or tote.

"Everything you see is the current inventory of my house," he said, calling upon everyone present to expand their horizons regarding bags and their utility, especially sturdier re-usable totes.

During the public forum Stephen Knight, Political Director at Save the Bay, urged the Commission to ban single-use bags in Milpitas and take action to ban polystyrene (styrofoam). He explained that the greatest damage comes from consumers' daily activities and that plastic bags are ubiquitous. They are light-weight, so blow into creek beds and water ways, disintegrate into bits, are easily ingested by animals and emit toxic chemicals. Knight contends plastic bags are not recyclable and are designed to be thrown away.

American Chemistry Council representative Steve Carrillo urged RSRAC to wait for San Jose's EIR. He believes many are not sufficiently informed about the issue. Although San Francisco passed a plastic bag ban, the amount of plastic-bag litter remained relatively unchanged, actually increasing by 1 percent.

Tom Knox, representing a plastic food service packaging group, explained that laws and regulations prevent consumers from using their personal, most often re-usable, food containers at restaurants for health and safety reasons.
He maintains polystyrene can be recycled and is a valuable commodity as long as collection methods are cost-effective. He asserts it is easy to vilify plastics but no city can demonstrate measurable benefits of banning them.

"Paper products that businesses would use as an alternative in the event of plastic containers being banned are coated in plastic and would be as much plastic by weight as a foam item of the same type," Knox said. "The plastic ensures the paper and food do not touch, a federal regulation."

According to Knox, the real solution is to understand how bags and containers enter the environment and identify the culprits. This would be considerably more difficult than banning.

Mayor Robert Livengood stated that there are too many plastic bags to recycle in a timely fashion, so people throw them away.

The commission took no action on this item. Once staff has reviewed San Jose's EIR, a special meeting is likely to be called because RSRAC only meets twice a year.

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