Behind the counter at Nick’s Liquor store in West Oakland, owner Abdullah Albasir tries to calm customers annoyed that they have to pay 10 cents for a bag now that Alameda County’s new regulations on plastic bags have gone into effect.
“I don’t got 10 cents,” one customer says loudly, sliding a gallon jug of water and packages of Marie Callender’s TV dinners across the counter.
“You charge 10 cents, too?” asks another customer overhearing this conversation. “Damn!”
Albasir explains that he’s just following the law, but like other West Oakland liquor storeowners and cashiers, he’s still facing the ire of customers who want their shopping bags for free.
On January 1, Alameda County’s Reusable Bag Ordinance went into effect, banning businesses within the county from distributing single-use bags to customers and requiring store owners to offer reusable or recycled paper bags for a 10 cent fee. The regulatory agencies involved in StopWaste.org passed the ordinance last January as a means of reducing the amount of pollution produced by plastic bags. Businesses affected by the new law include liquor stores, pharmacies, grocery stores and other establishments that sell packaged foods, alcohol or both; restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops are the only exceptions.
As part of the new ordinance, store owners are required to keep monthly records of the number of paper and reusable bags purchased and sold to customers. Customers can bring their own bags, free of charge, or pay for the bags offered by the stores. Store owners bucking the new ordinance will be fined $100 to $500 per violation, a penalty handed out by regulatory agents who will intermittently visit the establishments to make sure their records are in order. (Read Oakland North’s previous coverage of Alameda County’s plastic bag ban)
How have liquor store customers reacted to the new law? Not well, say some Oakland cashiers and storeowners. At Nasan Market, just several blocks away from Nick’s, a cashier said some shoppers have become so upset about the new charge that he’s lost business. “Everybody says, ‘I don’t want to pay 10 cents, I don’t want to pay 10 cents,’” said the cashier, who goes by Sam with customers and declined to give his full name. He estimates that he lost $25 to $30 the day after New Year’s due to the fee. One customer, he said, put all of his stuff back on the shelves and stormed out of the store after being told he would be charged for a bag. “I lost a customer,” he said, throwing up his arms.
Prior to the ordinance’s passage, black plastic bags were given indiscriminately to liquor store customers, said Albasir at Nick’s Liquor, regardless of how many things they were purchasing. “If they buy or a soda or a cupcake, they say, ‘Give me a bag,” said Albasir, who supports the new ordinance. “People, they pay 25 cents, a dollar and they want a bag. Now I can say, ‘It is 10 cents.’”
Albasir said he agrees with the environmental motives behind the new ordinance. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes: People ask for a bag and then as soon as they leave the store they throw it in the street,” he said.
Many of those discarded plastic bags, Albasir said, end up in the ocean, where there is a mass of plastic big enough to be seen from outer space. “It’s not about saving a bag,” he says to the irate customers in line. “It’s about saving the environment.”
Isaac Lott, a West Oakland resident who’s been frequenting Nasan for 28 years, said he doesn’t mind paying 10 cents for a bag. “Plastic bags fuck up the environment,” he said as he stopped to buy some Twizzlers. “If you got to pay for it, then you should know it ain’t good.”
But not every storeowner agrees with this assessment. At N&A market, located two blocks from Nasan, signs around the store clarify that the new policy isn’t the management’s doing: “There will be a surcharge of 10 cents per bag. This is a city ordinance not the store.” N&A owner Mohamed Moasee said he’s against the new ordinance. “Especially for people living in the ghetto, 10 cents is a lot of money, considering how many bags people use a day,” he said.
Anna Stock Matthews, the public relations person for StopWaste.org, said that for the most part business owners have been pretty cooperative. “StopWaste.org has been working for the last year to help all of the businesses comply with the new ordinance,” she said.
But on the day after New Year’s, the new rules weren’t being followed everywhere. Along Adeline Street, black plastic bags were still being dispensed to customers at some liquor stores, sometimes for a 10 cent fee and at other times for free. Intimidated by some customers, one cashier passed out bags to some shoppers who hadn’t purchased anything. “Some people get mad,” he said. He said that it was the last day that he would use the old black bags, and showed off the translucent reusable-labeled bags behind the counter that the store will begin selling this week.
Jeff Becerra, the communications manager at StopWaste.org, hopes the ordinance will curb the use of a product that is detrimental to the environment. “We know that things that are new like this sometimes take time to adapt to,” Becerra said. “But bringing a reusable bag to a store will become a habit for a lot of people.”
Albasir agreed that it takes time for legislation to affect people’s habits. “Imagine you live next to here,” he said. “Some people come in and they get a cupcake and soda. They walk home then they come back.” If you keep charging them for bags, he said, “next time they come in, they say, ‘I have my own bag.’ I’ve seen it already today.”
As he spoke, a woman entered the store with two young girls beside her. “I’m not going to pay 10 cents for a bag,” she said as she waited for him to ring her up at the counter. “That’s some foolishness.” Instead, she grabbed the barbecue chips, jumbo-sized Rice Krispies treat, sour apple rings and other candy she had purchased and placed them in the arms of each of the girls to carry.
Albasir laughed as she angrily exited the store. “See, she got mad,” he said. “But did you see her with a bag?”