Alameda County Waste Management Authority Passes Landmark Legislation To Ban Single-Use Bags Countywide

March 13, 2012

Alameda County – which includes over 1.5 million residents in 14 cities and covers more than 700 square miles – recently became the most populous county in California to pass a ban on single-use bags. On January 25, 2012 the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (StopWaste.Org), passed landmark legislation to ban plastic and paper single-use bags in an effort to reduce waste, litter and the amount of plastic pollution that is clogging our creeks and San Francisco Bay. This ordinance, which covers the most residents of any such policy in California, bans single-use bags at check out at retailers selling packaged food, while recycled-content paper or reusable bags may be provided but only if the retailer charges a minimum price of $0.10 per bag.

"Save The Bay is thrilled Alameda County has taken this important step to reduce pervasive plastic bag pollution in San Francisco Bay; and we are pleased all the county’s cities have chosen to participate in this regional ban on single-use bags," said Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis. 

"We're proud to have led this historic countywide effort," said Gary Wolff, StopWaste.Org Executive Director. "The ordinance will not only reduce waste to landfills and protect waterways, but also save money for local governments by reducing litter." 

StopWaste.Org takes lead with countywide ordinance
Alameda County's ordinance affects more residents than any single-use bag policy passed in California, and will go into effect on January 1, 2013. The ordinance bans single-use bags at check out at retailers selling packaged food, including pharmacies, supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience food stores, and liquor stores. The ordinance affects approximately 1,900 of the 7,000 retailers in Alameda County. 

Recycled content paper or reusable bags may be provided but only if the retailer charges a minimum price of $0.10 per bag. The $0.10 price will go up to $0.25 per bag on January 1, 2015 unless the Alameda County Waste Management Authority Board finds before then that the 10 cent charge sufficiently discourages single-use bag use. The ordinance does not ban single-use bags used to transport produce, bulk food or meat from within a store to the point of sale. 

The 14 cities within the county, and the County on behalf of unincorporated areas, were given the opportunity to opt out of the ordinance by resolution of their governing board by March 2, 2012. None chose to do so.   

Setting restrictions on single-use bag distribution will help local jurisdictions meet their stormwater permit and litter control requirements at lower costs and reduce environmentally harmful trash in storm drains and creeks. Despite voluntary efforts to promote reusable bags countywide for several years, plastic bags are still consistently collected in large numbers by volunteers in Alameda County on Coastal Cleanup Day. 

Alameda County waterways threatened by trash and plastic pollution
In 2007, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board declared five waterways in Alameda County – Strawberry Creek and Cordonices Creek in Berkeley, Sausal Creek and Damon Slough in Oakland, and San Leandro Creek in San Leandro – so polluted with trash that they violate the federal Clean Water Act. As part of Coastal Cleanup Day, volunteers reported removing almost 4,500 plastic bags from Alameda County creeks and shorelines in 2010. Also in 2010, per new regulations outlined in the Water Board’s municipal storm water permit, Alameda County jurisdictions identified 72 "trash hot spots" that are now required to be cleaned up. Further, several Alameda County waterways, including Damon Slough, repeatedly make Save The Bay’s annual list of Bay Trash Hot Spots.

Plastic trash solutions
Tough policies and regulations are needed to reduce plastic trash flowing to the Bay and ocean. Smartly crafted ban or charge policies, such as the one passed in Alameda County, are proven ways to create a mass switch to reusable bags to clean up our communities and San Francisco Bay. Washington D.C.'s five cent charge on bags has resulted in an estimated 80 percent decrease in plastic and paper bag distribution, and 66 percent fewer plastic bags found in the Anacostia River. 

Alameda County cities currently spend millions to clean up litter in our creeks and storm drains – and plastic bags consistently make up a large portion of this trash. This single-use bag ordinance will also help reduce the number of bags going to landfill and decrease the problems caused by plastic bags at recycling processing centers, such as jammed machinery, work flow stoppages, and threatened worker safety.

In the absence of a statewide bill banning plastic bags, local efforts are more important than ever, placing Alameda County in the spotlight as cities and counties across the state and the country consider their own single-use bag ordinances.