Bag ban, here we come

Local stores prepare for city regulations on single-use plastic bags, which go into effect Jan. 1

Brionne Saseen says she doesn’t anticipate much resistance to new rules regarding bags at the checkout where she works, at Chico Natural Foods.

Brionne Saseen says she doesn’t anticipate much resistance to new rules regarding bags at the checkout where she works, at Chico Natural Foods.

Photo by Brittany Waterstradt

The stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve will mark a number of changes, including one that’s near and dear to local environmentalists. Plastic bags represent a major ecological scourge. Their manufacture requires a massive amount of petrochemicals, and, typically used once and discarded, they then clog waterways, take up space in landfills and add to the trash gyre in the Pacific Ocean.

Many Chicoans understand this, particularly those who shop at sustainability-conscious stores such as the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative and S&S Organic Produce & Natural Foods. Some have embraced reusable totes for years—well before pushes began across the state to prohibit single-use bags.

“I think our customers appreciate a willingness to be good stewards of the community by being in compliance with local ordinances and also good stewards of the environment,” said Brionne Saseen, the facility and sustainability manager at Chico Natural Foods.

One such ordinance, taking effect Jan. 1, is Chico’s ban on nonreusable plastic bags. When the City Council gave final authorization in May, it joined 107 other local governments in California that issued similar restrictions. The California Legislature followed suit, with Gov. Jerry Brown signing SB 270—a statewide ban—into law Sept. 30.

Since it passed sooner, the Chico ordinance takes effect sooner; stores outside the city limits have until July to comply. Effective dates vary by business type: Grocery stores and pharmacies face the initial deadline, while smaller shops—convenience and liquor stores—get an additional year.

The regulations, be they Chico’s or California’s, call on stores to stop distributing thin plastic bags, except small ones used to separate meat, produce and pharmaceutical items; and to charge for paper or heavier plastic bags to encourage reuse.

The amount of the bag fees vary under city and state provisions. The city requires a charge but has set no specific minimum for plastic, just a 10-cent minimum for paper; the state, by contrast, set a minimum of 10 cents for all bags sold. While neither local nor state government will receive any of the money collected, the city established no parameters for how businesses can use the proceeds, while the state delineated limits.

Come July, Chico businesses won’t have to worry about switching to a new set of standards, however. Linda Herman, administrative manager for the city’s General Services Department, says the particulars of Chico’s ordinance will remain in force even after the state law takes effect.

So, how are local businesses adapting?

Grocers, at least, are ready for the new rules. Along with Chico Natural Foods and S&S, the CN&R spoke with Raley’s, SaveMart and FoodMaxx—all with plans in place. Herman says she’s been contacted by the other markets, as well, so she’s confident of compliance. As of Dec. 10, Herman hadn’t heard from pharmacies or major retailers with groceries and/or pharmacies, so she planned a proactive outreach effort.

“I don’t imagine enforcement being an issue, especially during this phase, which is the larger stores,” Herman said. “We pretty much tried to mirror what the state [would pass], and the state pretty much mirrored what everyone else was doing. We tried to come up with something statewide that was consistent because these grocers are large and dealing with communities all over the state.”

Indeed, both Kat Maudru of Raley’s and Alicia Rockwell of SaveMart Supermarkets (which also operates FoodMaxx) say their companies already have experience with this transition—as do their customers.

“Currently, we have about one-third of our stores already operating under a city plastic bag ordinance, mostly in the coastal and Bay Area regions,” Rockwell said. “In those areas, we have experienced shoppers adjusting quickly to bringing back their own reusable bags or purchasing from a selection of bags at checkout.”

Not everyone is embracing this change, though. Chico’s ordinance sparked plenty of controversy and heated debate before passing with a 5-2 vote along progressive/conservative lines. The state ban also stirred opposition, which hasn’t died off with the passage of SB 270. A group called Bag the Ban is pushing to overturn the legislation with a referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

Grocers large and small expect some degree of resistance, but not too great.

“What’s nice is that it’s everywhere in Chico; it’s not just affecting one store, like we’re making a change, charging for bags, and we’re getting the flak from customers for that,” said Emily Dehnke, general manager at S&S.

To comply with the city ordinance, many grocers are looking to a Butte County manufacturer to replace single-use bags. Roplast Industries, based in Oroville, long has supplied thicker plastic bags to S&S and Chico Natural Foods. Now it counts major chains among its clients.

Roplast’s product line called Bring Back Bags meets the specifications in city and state codes—namely a minimum thickness of 2.25 mils (1 mil is equal to 1/1000th inch). Gearing up for the Chico ordinance, Roplast sought submissions of artwork to adorn the first wave of bags for 2015 to be carried at Chico Natural, FoodMaxx, Raley’s, S&S, Safeway, SaveMart and other businesses.

“The Chico Art Bag is a great way to promote the arts in Chico and promote reusable bags at the same time,” said Camille Hogan, reusable bag specialist at Roplast, which also will donate to local arts efforts as part of the project.

While S&S and Chico Natural have been steady customers for Roplast, neither has charged shoppers for Roplast bags. That will have to change Jan. 1—and they need to figure out what to do with the money. Options include offsetting higher costs of reusable bags (the city’s idea when passing the ordinance, according to Herman); education programs; and charitable donations.

“Hopefully we’re not selling much of either of the bags because the [reusability] program really takes off and is effective,” Saseen said.