Bags o’ trouble

City Council moves to regulate carry-out plastic bags

A plastic-bag recycling bin outside the Mangrove Avenue Safeway.

A plastic-bag recycling bin outside the Mangrove Avenue Safeway.

photo by tom gascoyne

Who knew that Rwanda, the African nation infamous for a 1994 outbreak of genocide that took 800,000 lives, has banned plastic bags because of the environmental damage they do?

That news—presented by a young woman named Nim Mann, a senior at Pleasant Valley High School, who last summer spent a month in Rwanda—was offered during public testimony during the Chico City Council’s Jan. 2 discussion of a proposed ordinance banning plastic carry-out bags in large retail outlets.

Mann said that she was upset when the plastic bags she used to carry some belongings were confiscated at the airport, she was fined $5 and required to buy paper bags to replace them. On the other hand, she said, “While I was there for that month I was surprised to see how clean and how litter-free the streets were for a Third World country.”

The council has been wrestling with the issue several months. And like so many politically divisive matters that arise in Chico, this one has sparked controversy and social debate via letters to the editor and comments at council meetings.

Supporters say other California cities, other states and other nations have already passed such laws. Environmentally minded people point to studies and observations that the bags are carried by the wind, land in rivers and end up in the ocean, where there is a huge gyre of plastic scrap the size of Texas that’s killing marine life.

Opponents say the matter is a waste of city time and money and that the problem is greatly exaggerated.

In the end the council voted 5-2 to direct staff to draft an ordinance that bans carry-out plastic bags provided by stores that have annual sales of $2 million or more and a minimum of 10,000 square feet of taxable retail space. It exempts restaurants, nonprofits and social organizations.

There is also a requirement for stores to charge 10 cents for paper bags, with the stores keeping the revenue. Customers on food stamps or WIC will not be charged for paper bags. There is also a one-year transition time from approval to implementation of the ordinance.

City Attorney Lori Barker said that when the matter was before the council last September there were a couple of pieces of legislation that would have regulated plastic bags statewide. Assembly Bill 1219 has since passed, allowing jurisdictions to require stores to charge up to 10 cents for paper or plastic bags. Since the store gets to keep the revenues, it is not considered a tax, Barker said.

However, there is currently a case out of Los Angeles County before the state appellate court challenging a bag-restriction ordinance because of the fee for paper bags. Barker said the appeal should be heard within the next six months, allowing the city to adjust the draft ordinance.

Then there is AB 298, which, if passed, would prohibit stores of a certain size and annual revenue from providing single-use bags to customers and require them to provide recycled paper bags, compostable bags or reusable bags to customers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, elimination of single-use bags would apply to convenience stores as well.

A woman wheels a shopping cart full of groceries in plastic bags out of Safeway.

photo by tom gascoyne

In her testimony, the first to be offered during the meeting, Nim Mann also stated that in Rwanda people use biodegradable plastic bags, but that effort is still in transition. She said vendors hand out paper bags for the most part.

“In my point of view the passing of legislation in Chico would be very beneficial based off the month-long trip I had in Rwanda, Africa,” she said.

Stephanie Taber, a regular at council meetings and an employee of Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl, addressed recently re-elected councilwoman Ann Schwab, as well as newcomers Randall Stone and Tami Ritter, mentioning a last-minute mailer that carried their names as candidates in the November general election. Taber said it was a Republican mailer that suggested the three candidates, who are in fact Democrats, supported Mitt Romney for president and would honor Republican values.

“This plastic-bag ordinance would override two of our most valued principles,” she said, “that of personal responsibility and limited government. Any vote to move this ordinance forward by any of you will indicate a personal, intentional deception of ill-informed voters by your participation in that mailing.”

Sue Hubbard, a local Tea Party leader and another regular at council meetings, said Mann’s testimony was misdirected.

“Really?” she said. “I am offended that anyone would compare Chico to Rwanda. I’m sorry, but do we really want to emulate Rwanda?”

Considering the city’s financial straits, she said “the staff should be focused on what’s most important for Chico, not sea turtles.”

Jon Luvaas, a former city planning commissioner, noted that many nations across the globe have already banned single-use plastic bags, as have the state of Hawaii and many other cities and communities across the nation. He said there are alternatives to the convenience offered by plastic bags.

“The damage to the world’s oceans, land and the millions of marine animals that are killed annually by ingesting, being smothered by or trapped in plastic bags that get away, or thrown away, blown off trucks or whatever may happen to them—we need to aim to a ban, and as soon as possible.”

Supervisor Wahl addressed the council and said he was speaking of behalf of his constituents, “the overwhelming preponderance of whom do not wish to have a plastic-bag ban, since they can only shop in Chico because there’s no grocery stores in the county that would adequately serve their needs.”

He said a grocery check-out clerk indicated that on her own she was a “progressive liberal person” but she thought the proposed bag ban was silly and “would inconvenience the check-out crews at the grocery stores.”

He said he believes many of the bags are either reused or recycled. “I have also heard of no plastic bags from Chico having been found in the ocean as yet.”

Voting no were Councilmen Sean Morgan and Mark Sorensen, both of whom said education rather than prohibition was the best course of action.