Pleasant Hill Latest City to Consider Banning Plastic Bags

May 1, 2014

Already outlawed in five Contra Costa cities and under fire at the state level, plastic bags could be banned here by the end of the summer.

Pleasant Hill's proposed ordinance, which mirrors one Walnut Creek adopted last month, prohibits distribution of single-use plastic bags at supermarkets, restaurants and all retailers, including department stores, liquor stores, convenience stores and drugstores. Customers could bring their own bags or purchase a recycled paper bag for 10 cents. The ordinance exempts garment bags and paper or plastic bags for fresh produce, meat and prescription medications.

Due to confusion about a provision included in proposed statewide legislation, Pleasant Hill is scrambling to adopt an ordinance before Sept. 1. State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, has introduced a bill that would ban distribution of single-use plastic bags at large grocery stores beginning in July 2015 and at liquor and convenience stores the following year.

If signed into law, Padilla's bill won't pre-empt local plastic bag ban ordinances adopted by Sept. 1. However, the bill does prevent cities and counties from applying additional plastic bag regulations to grocery and convenience stores after that date. The bill's language is unclear, though, and some cities have misinterpreted it as precluding cities from adopting any plastic bag ordinance after Sept. 1.

Hewing to the state bill's tight timeline, the Pleasant Hill City Council may consider an ordinance by July. Pleasant Hill has launched a public education campaign that includes a page on the city's website and an online survey.

Only 3 percent of the 13 billion plastic bags California retailers distribute each year are recycled, according to Padilla's office. Plastic bags are not biodegradable; instead they break up into smaller pieces that contaminate soil and water.

Assured that city workers aren't frequently picking up wayward plastic bags, Councilman Jack Weir said Pleasant Hill doesn't have a problem.

"Now given that we have to pass something, fine. But I would like the city to spend not one nickel enforcing this nonsense ordinance," he said during a recent discussion.

Councilman Ken Carlson believes the ban will help preserve the environment.

"It's not so over burdensome to a retail establishment or even a restaurant to put it in paper and for us, as citizens, to be somewhat civically responsible and bring recycled, reusable bags when we go out and do our shopping," he said.

The California Restaurant Association is urging Pleasant Hill to exempt eateries. In an April 7 letter, the group says plastic bags are safer than paper bags, which can tear due to leaks, and more sanitary than reusable bags, which may harbor E. coli or other harmful bacteria.

Bans on single-use plastic shopping bags have spread to cities and counties across the Bay Area, including Alameda County, San Jose, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito, Pittsburg and Walnut Creek. Martinez also is working on a ban, but Concord, Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda are not.

Save the Bay, an Oakland-based environmental group, has been lobbying local governments to ban single-use plastic bags for years.

"We think it makes sense from an overall sustainability standpoint, but also from a water quality standpoint to eliminate plastic bags," said Allison Chan, Save the Bay's clean bay campaign manager. "Even if you don't have a shoreline, this is still such an important issue to act upon as a community."