In the bag

City of Chico poised to really move forward on restrictions

Chicoans will have a couple of options next year at certain retailers. Bring their own bags, or pay 10 cents for each paper bag.

Chicoans will have a couple of options next year at certain retailers. Bring their own bags, or pay 10 cents for each paper bag.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

“I think the public believes that we’ve already done this.” City Councilman Randall Stone was speaking to the fact that many Chico residents thought the City Council had passed a ban on single-use plastic bags long ago. Yet, the ordinance moved forward only two weeks ago, when the council approved it on a 4-to-2 vote (Councilwoman Mary Goloff was absent).

During that meeting, Stone wasn’t the only one to note that the community was expecting the bag ban. Mayor Scott Gruendl recalled grocery shopping around Christmastime and seeing signs posted in the stores warning customers those particular types of bags would not be provided beyond Jan. 1.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. The council, in fact, had last taken action on the item more than a year ago. That’s because the panel was waiting for a state appellate court’s rulings on two cases, involving San Francisco and Marin County, on whether such a ban was exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act. As recently retired City Attorney Lori Barker explained to the council at the April 1 meeting, both were found exempt. In other words, municipalities throughout the state are now free to impose their own plastic-bag restrictions.

In fact, many ordinances are already in place.

According to Californians Against Waste, there are currently 76 bag-restricting ordinances in California spanning 105 cities or counties. The laws are designed to reduce the use of such plastic products, thus curbing the environmental damage associated with the ubiquitous bags. Chico is the first municipality in Butte County to take up such a prohibition. The nearest public agencies are Fort Bragg and Mendocino County, which adopted similar plans in May 2012 and June 2012, respectively. Mendocino County has since extended the ban to restaurants.

“The good thing is a lot of communities blazed a trail for us,” said Linda Herman, administrative manager in the city’s Public Works Department.

Chico’s draft ordinance will return to the City Council for final approval next month. When it goes into effect on Jan. 1, the law will extend to large retailers with grocery components—businesses with gross sales of at least $2 million a year (think Safeway, Walmart, etc.)—as well as large (10,000 square feet or larger) retail stores with pharmacies (Rite Aid, Walgreens, CVS). Next, beginning January 2016, the law will apply to convenience stores that sell alcohol.

In every case, the stores will be prohibited from using single-use plastic carryout bags. Instead, they will charge shoppers 10 cents for a paper bag. (The collected fees are to recoup the costs of the bags.) The stores also will be required to have reusable bags available for purchase. They will be allowed to continue to provide bags without handles (such as those used to hold veggies, bulk items, meat and prescriptions) at no charge.

Of course, shoppers will be charged nothing if they bring their own bags, and the ordinance does not regulate the type of bags customers may use. In other words, those who’ve stocked up on single-use plastic bags will be welcome to use them while shopping. Low-income residents who are recipients of government-subsidized food programs, such as CalFresh and WIC, are exempt from paying the 10-cent fee.

Herman said she, too, thinks locals have been expecting the restrictions to move forward. She’s noticed stores asking their customers whether they want a bag at all.

“In a way, people have already been practicing it,” she said. “I’ve seen more and more people with reusable bags, and I’m hoping for a smooth transition.”