Bagging the plastic bag

City leaders move plan forward in a split vote

Internal Affairs Committee members Andy Holcombe, Jim Walker and Bob Evans weigh in on a plan to regulate plastic-bag use.

Internal Affairs Committee members Andy Holcombe, Jim Walker and Bob Evans weigh in on a plan to regulate plastic-bag use.

Photo By tom gascoyne

The proposal to regulate, as opposed to ban, single-use plastic bags in Chico moved forward Tuesday, June 12, when the City Council’s Internal Affairs Committee voted to kick the matter back to the full council for consideration.

The issue, which has given fuel to both those who say local government is overreaching and those who say local government has a global responsibility to help protect the environment, was first broached last November with a citizen’s request of the city’s Sustainability Task Force.

The task force received public comment at its December and January meetings and recommended the council approve directly pursuing such an ordinance by kicking it to the city attorney or sending it to Internal Affairs for further public input. Both sides showed up this time around once again either to denounce nanny-style government or urge that the city do its part for the larger public good.

Linda Herman, the city’s general-services administrative manager, supplied the background: A citizen came forward and asked that the city take up the issue of single-use plastic bags (2.25 milliliters or less thick with handles) distributed by the larger grocery stores.

Currently, Herman said, there are 49 jurisdictions in the state with plastic-bag regulations, including Los Angeles, which passed its ordinance just last month. Another 50 California communities are now considering such an ordinance.

Herman mentioned state law AB 2449, passed in 2007, required grocery stores to offer bag recycling, but prohibited charging for plastic bags as a means to regulate their use and encourage consumers to use reusable bags (such as nylon or canvas varieties). That law, which does allow stores to charge for paper bags, sunsets at the end of this year.

Vice Mayor Jim Walker began with a simple question: Is there a problem? He answered by noting other cities, states and countries were passing plastic-bag ordinances.

“There must be something to this,” he said. “It’s not like we are on the cutting edge.”

On the other hand, Councilman Bob Evans questioned the costs of using city staff time, writing an expensive environmental-impact report and providing public education and enforcement.

“Four costs,” he said. “That is an issue. We are eliminating library funding, [and] reducing fire and police funding. The reality is there is only so much money. That is a reality we have to face.”

Councilman Andy Holcombe disagreed. He said pursuing a plastic-bag ordinance does not increase staff costs, but rather asks staff to prioritize the use of their time. He said he believed such an ordinance is important.

“There are those people who say the earth is flat,” he said, “that there is no global warming and no negative impact from plastic bags.”

Then the meeting was opened to public comment.

Council watchdog Juanita Sumner said the littering of the landscape with plastic bags is caused by the local waste haulers.

“The problem is the trash blowing out of the trash trucks,” she said. This is more like a ‘Get off our backs’ measure. It’s not going to do anything to get trash off the ground. Our dump needs to be brought up to standards. This will just add to the price of my groceries.”

Sue Hubbard, another regular at council meetings, defended plastic bags and those who use them.

“There are plenty of us here who get plastic bags and reuse them a million times,” she said. “[The proposed ordinance] is a feel-good type of thing. I think a majority of Chicoans don’t want it. So put it on the ballot.”

Walker said he’d learned that less than 5 percent of plastic bags get recyled.

“The most important benefit is a healthy planet,” said Chris Nelson, an activist in the local environmental scene. “This is just an opening step into doing what is right.”

Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said the bigger picture should be considered.

“This is really about a shift in society,” she said. “One day we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember when we didn’t use recyclable bags?’ We are shifting our society, and that is uncomfortable for some people.”

Walker agreed. “Adaptation occurs pretty easily,” he said, “though there is some noise at the onset.”

The committee voted 2-1, with Evans dissenting, to recommend the council move forward with a plastic bag ordinance.