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April 21, 2010 > Board of Supervisors moves to ban single-use carryout bags

Board of Supervisors moves to ban single-use carryout bags

Submitted By Gwendolyn Mitchell and Laurel Anderson

On April 13, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to establish an ordinance banning single-use carryout bags distributed by retail businesses in the unincorporated areas of the County. Supervisors directed staff to draft a proposed ordinance to be brought back to the Board by October for approval. In the meantime, County staff will reach out to businesses to achieve voluntary compliance.

Approximately 600 single-use carryout bags are used per person annually in California, according to the California Department of Recycling. This ban would serve as part of a regional effort to reduce single-use bags that litter roadsides, damage drainage systems, harm wildlife and pollute local creeks and streams.

"Over the past year, I've heard from many residents who support banning single-use bags," said Supervisor Ken Yeager, President of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. "People are becoming increasingly aware of the very real harm these bags pose to our environment."

As part of its considerations, the County will comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires the County to consider the environmental consequences of adopting the ordinance. The County will review an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) being prepared by the City of San Jose as part of the City's push to ban both plastic and paper single-use carryout bags within City of San Jose limits. If the County determines an EIR is required under CEQA, the County may model its EIR report after the City of San Jose, saving the County the effort and expense of a separate EIR. The EIR would provide detailed information on the potentially significant environmental effects of a ban, how those effects might be minimized, and alternatives.

Through the County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission, consisting of elected officials throughout Santa Clara County, staff is working to enact consistent policies across local jurisdictions. Currently, the City of Sunnyvale is exploring a similar ban on single-use bags, while the City of Palo Alto has enacted a ban on single-use plastic bags. Work, locally and regionally, may also spur State action on the issue.

Supervisor Yeager first brought the issue of single-use bags to the Board in September 2008. In March 2009, the Board approved a phased approach to banning single-use carryout bags, which included public education and surveying local retailers in the unincorporated areas. A total of 52 retailers in the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County are expected to be affected by any new policy enacted. Those retailers account for an estimated 32,000 paper and plastic single-use carryout bags on an annual basis.

The Santa Clara County Integrated Waste Management Division has worked over the past 18 months to track re-usable bag usage and educate the public of the benefits of re-usable bags. Over a six-month period, an increase from 8 percent in July 2009 to 10 percent in January 2010, re-usable bag use was observed by County staff conducting site surveys at grocery stores in and around the Unincorporated areas. While this is a positive trend, the new ordinance aims to increase the use of re-usable bags dramatically in Santa Clara County.

"Our staff has reached out to businesses and residents for some time on the positive environmental impact of re-usable bags," said Kevin O'Day, Acting Director of the County's Agriculture and Environmental Management Department. "Through numerous newsletter articles, re-usable bag giveaways, staff visits to local store managers and more, our staff has put the word out that re-usable bags are a good thing to bring with you whenever and wherever you shop."

The proposed ordinance, intended to ban paper and plastic bags distributed by retail businesses to customers at time of checkout, would exclude restaurants, non-profit organizations and social organizations.

The proposed ordinance may provide some exceptions including: allowing retailers to provide plastic or paper bags for items such as fresh produce, meat, frozen foods, prepared foods, bakery items, plants, prescription drugs, small utility bags at hardware stores and greeting card "header" bags; allowing plastic bags used to protect delivered newspapers; and permitting the sale of single-use paper bags only if they are 100 percent recyclable and contain a minimum of 40 percent post-consumer waste. These "green" single-use bags may be sold at the retailer's cost with the retailer keeping the remittance for cost recovery.

Thirty of the 52 businesses that would be impacted by the ban are in District One. Supervisor Don Gage, who opposed moving forward with the ordinance, expressed his concern that the County not rush into a decision to ban single-use bags because he believes more stakeholder input is needed.

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