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Plastic bags could be banned in Alameda County stores by Jan. 2013

on November 21, 2011

Every year, more than 700 million plastic bags are given away by stores and restaurants in Alameda County, according to StopWaste.Org, a public agency composed of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (ACWMA) and the Source Reduction and Recycling Board.

But that could all change if a ban on one-time use plastic bags is approved in January.

If approved by the ACWMA Board, the ban would begin January 1, 2013, and would prohibit retailers from giving out single-use plastic and paper bags to shoppers at checkout.  Retailers could hand out paper bags that contain at least 40 percent recycled materials, but would be required to charge 10 cents per bag.

“These ordinances will help us reach our long-term goals for waste reduction,” said StopWaste.Org spokesperson Jeff Becerra.

The ordinance would also require stores to charge a minimum of 10 cents for reusable bags made of cloth or machine washable fabric. Restaurants, take-out food establishments, nonprofit charity thrift stores or any businesses that receive revenue primarily from the sale of food prepared on-site would be exempt from the ordinance. Plastic bags without handles used by customers to protect or contain meat, fresh produce, or other goods that must be protected from moisture or contamination would also be exempt.

This means that at the grocery store, the bags used to fill with fruits, vegetables and meats will still be permitted, but plastic bags at the checkout counters will no longer be available.

Failure by establishments to follow the proposed ordinance would be punishable by fines ranging from $100 to $500 per violation.

StopWaste.Org proposed the ordinance as part of an effort to reduce plastic bag litter in county waterways and landfills, as well as to encourage businesses to move away from single-use products and toward reusable alternatives. The ordinance is currently still an administrative draft, meaning that the language has yet to be finalized and changes can be made to it before a final version goes before the ACWMA Board for a first reading on December 8. The final ordinance proposal will be available to the public on StopWaste.Org’s website at the beginning of December, and the December 8 meeting will be open for public comment.

In January, the ordinance goes up for a vote before the ACWMA, which is composed of elected officials from cities and sanitary districts throughout Alameda County. Oakland is represented by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (At-Large).

At a public hearing for the draft ordinance last Wednesday, representatives from a number of area environmental organizations, including Save the Bay and Californians Against Waste, spoke in support of the ban. UC Berkeley students representing California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) wore signs that read, “ban the bag” and spoke out about “the need to enforce responsible behavior for our consumer habits.”

Megan Majda, who has been coordinating the bag ban campaign for CALPIRG, was one of many speakers to urge the ACWMA Board to consider making the ordinance stricter and include retailers who would be exempt from the ban, including all fast food, restaurant, and other eating establishments.  “We need to set an example for the state,” Majda said.

Allison Chan, a policy associate with Save the Bay, spoke in support of the ban, but also shared  concerns about its scope. “It fails to provide consistency for consumers and businesses,” she said, referring to the fact that not all county retailers would be required to follow the ban as the ordinance is currently written.

Tim James, who spoke representing the California Grocer’s Association (CGA), said that if StopWaste.Org approves the ban, the CGA will be comfortable that the ordinance will be fair and work well for consumers and retailers. “It provides low and no-cost options for consumers and ensures retailers won’t see any unnecessary burdens,” James said. “This is a real opportunity for Alameda County to fulfill its environmental goals while still being respectful of the retailer and the consumer.”

The plastic bag ban is one of two draft ordinances under consideration by the AWCMA Board.  The other is a mandatory recycling ordinance that would require all businesses, single-family and multi-family residences separate recyclable and organic material from their trash. Three separate containers would be required: one for recyclables, such as cardboard, paper, glass, metal and plastics; one for organic matter destined to be composted; and one for waste that will be placed in a sanitary landfill.

As the public agency responsible for waste reduction in Alameda County, StopWaste.Org’s motivation for this ordinance proposal stems from a desire to see less and less waste go into landfills every year, Becerra said.

“In the strategic plan we adopted last year, our goal was to have no more than 10 percent of landfill waste in Alameda County be composed of recyclable material by 2020,” Becerra said. “This helps us meet that goal.”

Exemptions from the recycling ordinance would be made for residences or businesses that don’t have space for recycling or composting bins or that lack access to services.  StopWaste.Org would emphasize regulation of large-scale waste generation by enforcing the ordinance at the generators (large business or company), transfer stations, and landfills. While StopWaste.Org has stated that persuasion would be used in preference to penalties, it would issue fines to those who don’t comply with the ordinance, Violators could face fines up to $100 for a first violation, up to $200 for a second violation within a year, and up to $500 for third and subsequent violations within a year.

Some officials from Alameda County cities have expressed concerns over the mandatory recycling ordinance, especially regarding the economic impact of increased collections. These include the cost of additional truck routes, increased miles traveled by collection trucks, processing capacity, outreach education, and enforcement.  The Cities of Fremont, Dublin, Livermore, Hayward and Pleasanton each expressed these concerns in comment letters responding to StopWaste.Org’s environmental impact report of the proposed ordinance.

Becerra said that StopWaste.Org has been working with representatives from cities to address these concerns and to make recommendations for any changes in the ordinance’s language before it goes before the ACWMA Board. Even if it is adopted, individual jurisdictions within the county could choose to opt out of the ordinance through a resolution by their governing boards.

California Waste Solutions, the waste management company that handles Oakland’s waste removal services is supportive of the mandatory recycling ordinance, said the company’s COO Joel Corona. “We’re optimistic and excited about the ordinance for Oakland that provides all citizens with convenient and effective recycling programs that continue to reduce solid waste disposal,” he said. He added that he did not anticipate the ordinance as presenting any unique or different challenges to the company’s existing recycling business model.

If the ordinance passes, its first phase would take effect on July 1, 2012 and would only include materials like recyclable plastics, metals, and paper and would apply to large businesses (defined as having four cubic yards or more of waste service per week), all multi-family homes and self-haulers. The second phase, which would expand to include all businesses and add organic matter as part of the requirement, would begin in 2014.

Most of the recyclable plastic, paper, and metals collected in Alameda County are exported to mills and smelting plants in Asia and shipped to overseas markets through the Port of Oakland. If the mandatory recycling ordinance is adopted, StopWaste.Org expects that in addition to decreasing the amount of recyclable material that winds up in landfills, it will also create jobs (300 directly with waste management companies according to Becerra) and bring more money to Alameda County.

“We’re landfilling $100 million worth of waste every year in Alameda County,” Becerra said. “Tapping into those materials can help improve the local economy while helping improve the environment.”




1 Comment

  1. Daily Digest | Save The Bay Blog on November 22, 2011 at 11:22 am

    […] North 11/22/2011 Plastic bags could be banned in Alameda County stores by Jan. 2013 Every year, more than 700 million plastic bags are given away by stores and restaurants in Alameda […]

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