City Council unanimously votes to ban plastic bags in Palo Alto

Becca Raffel, Author

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The Palo Alto City Council unanimously agreed upon a motion to ban one-time use plastic bags in Palo Alto at 9:44 p.m. at a meeting on Monday night at City Hall.

In doing so, the Council adopted the Retail and Food Service Establishment Checkout Bag Requirements Ordinance in addition to certifying the Final Environment Impact Report, with a few exceptions.

The proposed Retail and Food Service Establishment Checkout Bag Requirements Ordinance would essentially disallow all retail services, including food service establishments, from providing single-use plastic checkout bags. It would also require these places to charge 10 cents for a recyclable paper or reusable checkout bag until one year after ordinance implementation when they would charge 25 cents.

However, upon suggestion by Councilman Pat Burt, the City Council decided to make a few changes before adopting the ordinance, one of which was the implementation of the 10 cent price on reusable plastic bags for 18-24 months, as opposed to a year, and after this period it will be decided whether or not to raise the price to 25 cents. They also decided to allow smaller reusable plastic bags to be sold, as opposed to the 50 liter requirement in the ordinance. Additionally, City Council members slightly reworded the ordinance.

Another change, also brought up by Burt and finalized by Mayor Greg Scharff, called for the deletion of the requirement to label the acceptable bags with print marking them as reusable and writing the place of manufacture on them. Scharff feels bags from stores such as Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Apple are “attractive,” and this print would reduce the attractiveness of the bags, causing people to use them less.

“This would be using too much of the heavy hand of government in a way that doesn’t benefit anyone and will actually cause me to use the bags less,” Scharff said.

Julie Weiss, an environmental specialist of the Public Works Department, led a presentation regarding the reasons for this change.

Weiss began the presentation outlining the history of such movements in the past. In 1988, retail stores were first required to offer either paper bags or a choice between paper and plastic bags. In 2009, a ban was placed on single-use plastic bags solely in large supermarkets. Although this ban did reduce reusable bag use from nine percent to 24 percent of customers, litter and pollution continued to gather in the city.

Weiss explained that the main reason behind the ordinance was to ensure environmental well-being.

“We see that they [the bags] are impacting storm drains, we see that they’re impacting wildlife,” Weiss said.

Two cities in California have implemented this particular ordinance so far: Malibu near Los Angeles and Fairfax in Marin County, which, according to Weiss, “had not had any issues with this ordinance.”

“We think it’s also doable for our community as well,” Weiss said.

Weiss recognized that in San Jose, where a similar ordinance is currently in place, the average number of bags used per trip to the grocery store went from three to 0.3 in about a year of implementation.

After this presentation, Councilman Greg Schmid expressed reservations about the movement.

“We would be driving people to use more plastic bags than they’re using,” Schmid said.

Burt expressed concerns about lining trash cans without plastic bags. Instead of using trash bags to line trash cans, many council members described that they currently re-use the single-use bags that would be outlawed by the ordinance.

“Tell me if I’m missing something,” Burt said. “If I only used reusable bags how would I line my trash can?”

Mayor Greg Scharff also echoed these concerns.

“I thought I was being environmentally sensitive [by re-using plastic bags from grocery stores to line trash cans],” Scharff said. “Is that not true?”

Councilman Marc Berman was absent in the discussion due to a conflict of interest caused by his investment in a paper bag company. Council members Larry Klein, Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Nancy Shephard were also absent.

All in all, the present City Council members were pleased with the result.

“I think these are fairly minor modifications that try to strike a balance between a progressive program and one that is practical,” Burt said. “Maybe others will follow as they have in the past.”

Council member Gail Price also enthusiastically supported the ordinance.

“We are acting on an ordinance which really exemplifies our commitment to environmental protection,” Price said.