Palo Alto’s 2009 ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores could soon be expanded to all retail and food service establishments in the city.
The Public Works Department is gearing up for an environmental impact report related to the tougher ordinance, which also calls for a store charge on single-use paper bags to encourage greater use of reusable bags, according to a new report by Julie Weiss, an environmental specialist with the city.
The city must conduct an environmental study if it wants to beef up the ban. It’s one of the terms of a settlement reached with an industry group known as the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, which sued the city in 2009 over its ordinance outlawing plastic bags at grocery stores.
The industry group argued the initial ordinance would increase greenhouse gas emissions as more customers opted for paper bags. But a city analysis concluded there would be a sufficient switch to reusable bags. According to Weiss’ report, the percentage of customers using reusable bags jumped from 9 to 19 percent following implementation of the ban. By expanding its ordinance, the city hopes to further increase usage of reusable bags and reduce pollution in Bay Area waterways. Plastics pollution represents about 60 percent of the trash found in local creeks, according to Weiss’ report. “Bags are easily blown into waterways, across city boundaries and from freeways, and are consistently found during creek cleanups,”
Weiss wrote. “They are designed to hold products for a short period of time, but essentially do not decompose in natural environments.”
The tougher ordinance will also help Palo Alto meet a regional mandate to cut pollution in municipal storm sewer systems by 40 percent in 2014, 70 percent in 2017 and 100 percent in 2022. Cities with plastic bag bans receive credit toward those daunting requirements. Palo Alto could potentially increase its credit from 6 to 12 percent with a stricter ban.
Palo Alto is hardly alone in its crusade. Forty-eight cities in California have passed bans restricting plastic bags and most cities now also require a store charge for paper bags, according to Weiss’ report. San Mateo County is funding an environmental impact report that could help 24 Bay Area cities pass ordinances similar to the one Palo Alto is now pursuing.
The city isn’t participating in the San Mateo County effort for two reasons: It wants to avoid conflicts with the lawsuit settlement and its ordinance seeks to include food service establishments in addition to all retail. A draft of the environmental impact report is scheduled to be released for public review in September. If approved by the city council, the expanded ordinance would take effect on April 22, 2013, Earth Day.