At Lucky grocery store on East 18th Street in Oakland, the familiar white and red plastic bags are gone. Instead, clerks deposit groceries into customers’ blue mesh Ikea totes, vinyl beach bags, striped Footlocker bags, jacket pockets or anything else that’s useful for schlepping things from one place to another—and for saving their owners 10 cents apiece for paper bags. Alameda County shoppers are adjusting, if reluctantly, to the single-use bag ban that went into effect January first.
The Reusable Bag Ordinance, passed a year ago by Alameda County Waste Management Authority, is intended to abate waterway pollution by limiting the distribution of single-use carryout bags and coaxing people to opt for a reusable alternative. But if a recent weekday evening visit to Lucky and Oakland North’s previous stops at a couple West Oakland liquor stores offer any indication, the change is hard for some. More people are using their own totes, but some still aren’t aware of the ban and others refuse or forget, so they grudgingly pay for bags or avoid them altogether.
“It feels like people haven’t paid close attention,” says Wanda Redic, who’s helped brace Oakland residents for the transition since last fall. She says the city paid for advertorials in local papers, ran a billboard ad and mailed inserts with all water bills, among other work.
As recycling program specialist for the City of Oakland, Redic works with community agencies to put on outreach events that educate about the ordinance and make free bags available to low-income residents. Redic says her program has helped distribute some 30,000 bags since October. Most recently, the city has worked with the Alameda County Clean Water Program on a series of bag distribution events.
The last giveaway will happen Saturday, February 2, in the Fruitvale, near Foodvale Market. The team will give out 1,200 bags between 9 and 11 a.m., Redic says, adding “I’ll be surprised if they still have bags after ten o’clock.”
Redic is trying to ensure that as many people as possible don’t have to pay for a way to lug their groceries. She’s organized bag giveaways since 2007, when the Oakland City Council unsuccessfully tried to implement a similar ordinance, but she says because it’s now county law there’s a new urgency around the free totes. “Before it was like ‘What a cool bag!’” she says. “Now it’s like, ‘I really need a bag.’”
Under the ordinance, people using supplemental food programs, like WIC and food stamps, are exempt from the bag fee. But Redic says she’s received complaints from residents who use these programs and are still getting charged. It’s an issue county officials have to address with retailers, she says, but she’s doing what she can to help. “My hope is that we get enough of the reusable bags into the community that they don’t have to worry about paying the 10 cent fee,” she says.
Denise Jones, a clerk at Lucky, said most of her customers don’t know anything about the new policy. Many customers buy bags every time they shop, she said, but “some people are adjusting and start bringing bags.”
But not everyone is bringing or buying. As Jones talked, a grocery pageant flowed toward the store’s exit. A box of waffles passed by, tucked under an arm; a bag of chips was carried out between someone’s thumb and forefinger; two pints of ice cream, a package of cookies and bag of cat food went by, awkwardly stacked against a customer’s chest. At a nearby register, a cashier offered a bag for a bottle of wine. “I’ll just smuggle it in my coat like a drunk,” the customer said, smiling as he stashed the bottle in his jacket.
“Half the people don’t want bags,” said grocery bagger Carlos Perrault, shrugging. “It makes my job easier.”
Outside, an Oakland resident who gave her name as J. Smith unloaded a cartful of loose items into her trunk. “Obviously I’ve got bags in here,” she said, motioning towards her trunk, where she’d just added a carton of eggs to a heap of groceries. “I keep forgetting to take them in.”
The bag-left-in-the-car scenario is something Redic’s factored into the city’s outreach. At the Saturday event in Fruitvale, representatives from the city will give out window decals that state “Remember … Bag? Bring your own bag!” They’ll also pass out information about the ordinance and the impact of plastic bags on the local waterways and shoreline.
As Smith finished loading her trunk, a young woman walked out of the store with an arm full of un-bagged goods. “Everybody looks really ghetto. Look!” Smith said, pointing at the woman. “Everything has gone up,” she said, referring to food prices. “Why do we need to pay to put it in something?”
Not only are they paying for a way to transport their costly goods, some residents say, they’re paying for an inferior vehicle—paper bags tear and the handles like to detach, several Lucky customers pointed out. Oakland resident Michael Jackson uses the bus to get to and from the store. He recently left the store in the rain, and before could get on the bus his wet bags gave out, strewing his groceries across the sidewalk. Plastic bags were sturdy, he said, and he reused them at home. “You’re gaining and you’re losing,” he said, but he understands the reason for the change. “Anything that’s for the environment, I’ll go with the flow,” he said.
The county has received letters and calls making complaints about the ordinance, but not many, says Jeff Becerra, communications manager for Alameda County Waste Management Authority. The complaints are mostly from storeowners who want clarification about how to comply, he says, not from shoppers. “We anticipate there’s going to be some transition time for people to get used to this,” he says. “I think a lot of people already are. In a few weeks others will be.”