Berkeley’s plastic bag ban could get much stricter

“Prepayment” plastic bags, like these in the produce section of Berkeley Bowl West, would be banned under a new ordinance proposed by board member Kate Harrison. Instead, stores should provide paper bags and charge 10 cents each for them. Credit: Nico Savidge

A Berkeley board member wants to significantly expand local restrictions on plastic bags, with a new proposed ordinance that would ban containers from stores and restaurants almost entirely.

Legislation from council member Kate Harrison would ban the thick, reusable plastic grocery and takeout bags that many businesses have passed since Alameda County’s ban on more fragile single-use bags was introduced. entered into force in 2013. And it would broadly ban stores from supplying the plastic “prepayment bags” typically used for bulk products or items.

Harrison’s proposal is only in the early stages of what should be a multi-month legislative process. He will come before Berkeley City Council in referral to the Zero Waste and Energy committees this Tuesday.

Although the ordinance allows the use of paper bags instead of plastic bags, Harrison said the goal is to get people to cut bag consumption completely.

“It triggers a tendency for people to realize that it’s possible to bring your own (bags),” Harrison said. “Understanding that the throwaway society comes at a cost is important. “

Mark Murray, Executive Director of Californians Against Waste, said he did not know of any city that has adopted restrictions on plastic bags as strict as what Harrison is proposing.

The ordinance would apply to grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, food trucks and vendors at licensed events such as farmers’ markets; customers should pay 10 cents each for the paper bags if they don’t bring their own.

The legislation only provides a few exceptions: Restaurants can use plastic bags to wrap hot liquids, such as a take-out soup order, and grocery store meat and seafood counters can use prepayment bags. if customers request it.

The measure also requires that by 2023 all paper bags be made entirely from recycled materials.

Thicker, reusable plastic bags, such as those found at a Berkeley Target store checkout, would be banned under the order proposed by board member Kate Harrison. Credit: Nico Savidge

Advocates who view single-use thin plastic bags as an environmental threat have once accepted their thicker counterparts as a compromise measure. While they were still plastic, meaning they required fossil fuels to produce and did not biodegrade, the bags were strong enough to be reused over 100 times. If consumers got into the habit of reusing their bags, they would consume less plastic overall and the bags could have a lower lifetime carbon footprint than paper or fragile plastic alternatives.

But, Murray said, the thick plastic bag didn’t live up to that potential.

“It’s better only if it’s reused,” he said. “The problem is, consumers don’t reuse them – they become a dual-use bag, maybe a triple-use bag.”

By tackling pre-payment bags, Harrison’s proposal also targets one of the last strongholds of the flimsy plastic bag. Neither the Alameda County Bag Ordinance nor the state restrictions on thin plastic bags that voters supported in 2016 regulated these prepayment containers.

Under Berkeley’s proposed order, stores should instead provide bags of paper products and charge customers 10 cents each for them.

“When something is free, people take handfuls of it,” Harrison said. But if those bags had a small price, she said, customers would be more likely to skip the bag or bring their own from home.

The legislation is likely to face opposition from plastic bag manufacturers, who have fought past efforts restrict containers. A spokesperson for Plastics Industry Association did not respond to requests for comment on Harrison’s proposal.

If Harrison’s proposal passes and proves popular, however, Murray said it could spread to other communities.

“Local ordinances become the incubator for the idea,” Murray said. “We need communities like Berkeley to take the lead and show how it can be done. “

But that future is still a long way off. The referral that is submitted to city council on Tuesday asks the Zero Waste and Energy commissions to organize public awareness meetings with grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses that would be affected by the proposal. Harrison said it would likely take almost a year before a final ordinance was put to city council for a vote.

Berkeley Bowl spokesperson Chi Dixon said the store, where customers fill thin plastic prepayment bags filled with loose cherry tomatoes and lentils, is not taking a position on the proposed order. this stage, but plans to participate in discussions about it.

“We’re always looking for ways to be more environmentally conscious and pay attention to our carbon footprint,” Dixon said, noting that the store encourages customers to bring their own bags and sells reusable mesh product bags. .

But she also predicted that the requirements could be awkward for a store that stocks such a wide variety of items.

“Some products probably won’t work” in a paper bag, Dixon said, such as green vegetables sprayed with water or peanuts roasted in oil, which could spoil a paper bag. And paper bag supplies have been unreliable at times since the start of the pandemic, she said.

Murray noted that there were also practical issues when local governments, and ultimately California as a whole, banned single-use plastic bags; quite early on, however, many people got into the habit of bringing their own bags.

“The lesson learned from the single-use plastic grocery bag ban is that the company has survived,” Murray said. “People are making adjustments.”

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