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StopWaste releases report on the effectiveness of Alameda County Plastic Bag Ban

Alameda County ordinance banning plastic bags could go statewide

on September 22, 2014

After the countywide ban on plastic bags in 2012, shoppers in Alameda County adapted to bringing their own reusable bags to stores. Now the ban could go statewide, if Governor Jerry Brown signs SB 270 by the end of September. On Wednesday, Alameda County officials released a report examining the effectiveness of the countywide ban, arguing that it had a positive effect on the environment.

If SB 270 were to become law, it would prohibit grocery stores, drugstores and convenience stores from distributing single-use plastic bags for free, going into effect January 1, 2015. According to the text of the bill, stores could sell reusable bags with a minimum charge of 10 cents. These bags must be strong enough to carry 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet for a minimum of 125 uses. But the state bill differs from the county ordinance, in that it also requires the bags to contain recycled material and allows for compostable bags.

On Wednesday, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (ACWMA), the agency which enforces the ban locally, released a report analyzing how effective the Alameda County ban has been in terms of enforcement, conserving bags and changing customer behavior. According to the report, 84 percent of the 1,288 affected stores in the county complied with ordinance requirements.

To assess changes in bag purchasing activities, the ACWMA staff conducted visual observations at 69 affected retail stores before and after the ordinance went into effect. Their data shows that these stores purchased 85 percent (40 million) fewer bags in 2013, which the agency estimates translates to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions similar to what would be generated by 113 passenger cars in one year.

The report showed that the number of shoppers in the county bringing their own reusable bags and opting not to use a bag more than doubled. In addition, according to the report, the number of plastic bags found in storm drains decreased by roughly 44 percent.

At Wednesday’s joint meeting of the ACWMA Board, the Alameda County Source Reduction, Recycling Board and the Energy Council, board members agreed that the ordinance has been effective and achieved its goal of substantially reducing the environmental effects of plastic bag use.

“A 10-cent charge gives a reason for shoppers to pause before taking a bag,” said Meri Soll, senior program manager of StopWaste. (StopWaste is the ACWMA Board, the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board and the Energy Council operating as a public agency to pursue environmental measures such as diverting waste from landfills and reducing consumer waste.)

Alameda County adopted the Reusable Bag Ordinance in January 2012 to reduce the use of single-use bags and promote the use of reusable bags. Prior to the ordinance, each resident in Alameda County uses an average of 500 single-use plastic every year, said Soll. “They transport easily to air, water and trees”.

Alameda County’s ordinance on single-use plastic bags is not the only regional ban in California. In December 2010, San Jose passed its “Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance” to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. Kerrie Romanow, director of the Environmental Services Department for the city, described the ordinance as “successful,” in a memorandum at the end of 2012. The first two-year implementation of the ordinance saw a 55 percent reduction in the amount of plastic bags found in rivers and creeks and 89 percent reduction in those found in storm drains. There was also a 126 percent increase in retail store customers who choose not to use bags at all, according to the memorandum.

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson voted for the county ordinance in 2012 after seeing that “pros far outweighed the cons,” he said, via a spokesperson. Now he supports the statewide ban. “In order to make the largest impact, the policy needed to be adopted on a statewide basis,” said Carson. “Although the legislation may seem an inconvenience to some, it is critical that we take steps to clean up our environment and live more sustainably.”

If the bill passes, the California government will provide a $2 million loan to bag manufacturers for training their workers in the making of reusable bags. Even so, bag manufacturers nationwide have expressed doubts about the bill. Among its opponents are Lee Califf, the executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers. “This bill has never been about the environment,” said Califf in a press release from the group. “It’s a dirty deal between California grocers and union bosses to scam consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fee. Not a penny goes to a public purpose.”

But Cyril Manning, communications director of Save The Bay, and organization that works to protect the bay from pollution, said he is excited that the government is “forging the way to a bag-free world.” The group is now urging the governor to sign SB 270 by initiating a petition entitled “Make Plastic Bags History.” Confident that statewide effort will offer better results, Manning is looking for more stringent rules from the state. “There are challenges for the ban to be implemented statewide,” said Manning. “But it is completely doable.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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