Battle over Plastic Bags Focuses on San Jose

April 14, 2009

Fearing they are losing ground in the battle to eliminate litter-producing plastic bags, members of a leading Bay Area environmental group launched a counterattack Tuesday against a chief foe: the multibillion-dollar chemical industry.

Through lawsuits and intensive lobbying nationwide, the industry has vigorously opposed efforts that threaten the production of plastics. Now San Jose looms large in the future of plastic bags as it moves closer to becoming the first California city to impose a fee on single-use carryout bags.

Although a final council vote is not due until summer, already the city has been threatened with a lawsuit by an association of plastic bag manufacturers. The association and other industry interests also have sued or threatened to sue cities moving to ban or reduce the use of plastic bags, including Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, Oakland, Fairfax, Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach and Seattle.

"People need to know that the plastics industry is making this effort to undercut communities that are trying to do the right thing," said David Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Bay.

In a Tuesday news conference, Lewis stood alongside San Jose Councilman Kansen Chu and a city recycling contractor frustrated over the 80 tons of bags that clog her machines each month.

"All eyes are on San Jose, and that's why the bag industry is gearing up their efforts," Lewis said, announcing a campaign to support the San Jose bag fee proposal. "I think they're scared."

But Save the Bay is also sweating.

Late last month, Santa Clara County supervisors backed away from a fee on plastic bags, instead approving a heightened education campaign to discourage their use. The decision followed months of heavy lobbying by the American Chemistry Council and its influential foot soldiers, including former Assemblyman Manny Diaz, a South Bay politician-turned-lobbyist.

The city of Palo Alto — under the leadership of Mayor Peter Drekmeier, a longtime environmental activist — has bucked the regional trend, voting recently to ban plastic bags at supermarkets despite a lawsuit the industry has threatened to file any day. In September, the Palo Alto council also will consider imposing a fee on paper bags.

Tiburon attorney Stephen Joseph is challenging those efforts and has fired a legal salvo at San Jose as well. In a letter to the city threatening litigation, Joseph argues that plastic bags are as environmentally benign as any product available today, with a "tiny impact."

Nonetheless, he says, the prolific carrier of all things carryable has become "a negative symbol for some environmental activists and politicians who have become obsessed with eliminating them from the marketplace."

The lawsuits aim to force cash-strapped cities to produce costly environmental reports analyzing the impacts of bag bans and fees. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Ocean Protection Council later this month will discuss creating a model environmental analysis that cities could use as a template in designing their own studies.

Joseph also has threatened to sue Santa Clara County, and his lawsuits say his group Save the Plastic Bag is working on behalf of the plastic bag manufacturers. But Tim Shestek, a representative for the Virginia-based American Chemistry Council, said that while his trade group is lobbying against fees and bans, it has not filed any legal actions. Rather, the group is supporting a bill now before the Legislature that encourages voluntary recycling of plastic bags.

Two other bills now in the Assembly would impose bag fees throughout California. Environmentalists argue for that approach, saying voluntary recycling efforts haven't worked. State officials estimate that less than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags are recycled; most end up slipping down storm drains and out to sea.

According to California's Integrated Waste Management Board, Bay Area residents plow through 3.8 billion plastic bags each year, discarding 100 every second. One million end up in San Francisco Bay, which now contains more than 100 bags for every seal, duck and pelican.

Hoping to save sea turtles that swallow bags they think are jellyfish, Save the Bay is looking to San Jose to set an example. While San Francisco and Palo Alto have banned plastic bags outright, San Jose would be the first city to impose a fee, a strategy that provides an incentive for shoppers to bring their own reusables. The 25-cent fee collected on plastic and paper bags would max out at $2 per customer and be used for public education campaigns.

"There's a battle on — it's the bay versus the bag," environmentalist Lewis said. "And we want to make sure the bay wins."

Contact Karen de Sá at or 408-920-5781.