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San Jose City Officials to Consider Curb on Plastic Bags
San Jose Mercury News
Friday, August 21, 2009
San Jose officials will begin deciding this week whether to join some of the world's largest cities in banning the ever-useful but prodigiously polluting plastic bag.
On Monday, a council committee will consider how to scale back San Jose's contribution to the 19 billion plastic bags California residents carry out of stores each year, according to state reports.
Environmentalists and waste managers say those bags strangle sea birds, clog storm drains and paralyze recycling machines. In San Jose — particularly after a storm causes the Guadalupe River to rise and retreat — the bags can be spotted draping tree branches like unsightly jewelry.
San Jose is considering several options, including a fee on the thin, non-biodegradable bags, a ban or a public education campaign. But insiders agree that given the dismal economy, asking shoppers to pay more for bags as a disincentive is probably a non-starter, and city staff advise that an education-only campaign will be far less effective than a fee or ban and cost millions of dollars.
It's a microcosm of a debate that has swept cities from Mumbai to Mexico City, from sprawling Los Angeles to sleepy Gilroy.
In May, a Santa Clara County commission called on all cities here to establish a ban on plastic bags and a fee on paper at most retailers by April, 2010. County supervisors rejected such a move, citing concerns from shoppers, business owners and representatives of the plastics industry.
San Jose's full city council is expected to take up some form of that recommendation next month.
Passage "would be major," said Peter Drekmeier, the bike-riding, green-credentialed Palo Alto mayor who pushed for the county-wide ban. With its million-resident heft, "San Jose is not considered a super-liberal city like San Francisco, and it would inspire a lot of other cities to follow suit."
But at least one San Jose council member is having none of it. Although a recent United Nations report described plastic bags as among the two greatest sources of international litter, Pete Constant calls the proliferation overblown.
"I really question if the problem of plastic bag litter is as serious as people say it is," Constant said. "I can see litter all around, but it's very rarely plastic bags." Constant opposes a ban or fee and argues that plastic bags are reused for everything from lining trash cans to picking up dog waste.
His argument is echoed by many of the country's largest plastics producers, who say their products cause fewer greenhouse gases than paper bags. And as cities nationwide — including Santa Cruz, Foster City, Berkeley and Oakland here in the Bay Area — are considering or have passed curbs, many have been hit with litigation by a coalition of manufacturers and chemical industry representatives.
The most concerted opposition has come from the American Chemistry Council, which is urging San Jose to continue public education campaigns that encourage shoppers to bring their own bags and return extra plastics to bins outside supermarkets.
"A ban is really not the environmentally best option to be choosing — in most scenarios you're going to force people into paper, which has its own environmental problems," said council spokesman Tim Shestek. "There's a better way to do it that's more friendly, and we think that way is recycling."
Such efforts have not stopped Los Angeles from banning plastic bags at all supermarkets and retail stores beginning in January, a trend set by San Francisco in 2007. Palo Alto launches its ban at all large supermarkets on Sept. 18.
For many in Drekmeier's environmentally conscious city, the change next month will go little-noticed. Several local grocers voluntarily eliminated plastic bags even before the ban date was set, and many residents proudly tote brightly colored reusable bags throughout town.
"I have eight cloth bags in my car," said Pat Sherman, a 79-year-old retired psychotherapist interviewed last week outside her local Safeway. "I keep one on the front seat, but if I forget, I make myself go out and get it."
Changing habits in and around urban San Jose may be tougher, note city and county staff. An ongoing study by the county's Integrated Waste Management Division found just 8 percent of grocery shoppers carrying reusable bags; at one Story Road Safeway recently, not a single reusable bag was noted.
That has led some to conclude that weaning shoppers from plastic will require more than just cheery slogans and free cloth bags handed out at festivals. A multi-media blitz aimed at invading the public consciousness could cost taxpayers as much as $4.5 million, with questionable results, say city staff.
"We need to proactively eliminate these non-recyclables from our landfills and our waterways," said Councilman Sam Liccardo. "And while I'm flexible in considering approaches, I am not persuaded by the green-washing of the plastics industry that suggests that we can simply educate people to recycle plastic bags."
But county supervisors apparently believed teaching could work. In March, they opted for the education approach in unincorporated areas, combining publicity with follow-up studies.
San Jose can take more meaningful action, said Phil Cornish, program manager for the Friends of Guadalupe River Park and Gardens. "And I hope they don't punt like the county did. I hope they'll be a leader."