Perplexing plastic

Sustainability Task Force pushes discussion of single-use bags to City Council

Bill Mannel, manager of solid waste at the Neal Road Recycling and Waste facility, points out a small portion of fencing that on Tuesday afternoon had already collected a fair amount of wind-blown trash, namely plastic bags.

Bill Mannel, manager of solid waste at the Neal Road Recycling and Waste facility, points out a small portion of fencing that on Tuesday afternoon had already collected a fair amount of wind-blown trash, namely plastic bags.

Photo by Meredith J. Graham

Get involved:
The Sustainability Task Force meets the first Monday of every month. It will be taking the issue of a plastic-bag restriction to the City Council at an upcoming meeting.

Check the city’s website at for updates on task force meetings and when the council will address the issue.

Driving through the expansive Neal Road Recycling and Waste facility, where the majority of Chico’s—and the rest of Butte County’s—trash and recycling end up, plastic bags can be seen strewn about. One here, one there, a whole bunch over there.

“The way they are, we’ll probably have three guys out tomorrow all day picking up plastic bags,” said Bill Mannel, manager of solid waste at the facility. “This right here will probably take someone a full hour,” he explained, pointing to one section of fencing that had collected a variety of wind-blown trash, most of it plastic, some paper.

In fact, it was during a tour like this one that Andy Keller came up with the idea for ChicoBag, the reusable-bag company headquartered in Chico.

“Up until then, I used plastic bags,” he told the CN&R back in June. “I knew I wanted to make a difference. I thought, ‘I’m going to help humanity kick their plastic-bag habit.’”

That was 2004. Earlier this week, it was evident that members of the Sustainability Task Force and many of the public who attended Monday night’s meeting (Jan. 9) hope to accomplish the same thing, only in a different way. The task force voted 7-2 to recommend the Chico City Council discuss adopting an ordinance restricting single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and pharmacies.

But that decision came after a lengthy discussion about education vs. regulation, the language of “ban” vs. “regulate,” and financial incentives.

Education turned out to be one of the most talked-about issues. Some felt that a campaign is needed to alert the public to the dangers and pitfalls of plastic-bag use—they’re easily windblown and end up in countless creeks, rivers and oceans each year. Plus, they’re used in the billions each year across the United States. Keller, an activist as well as reusable-bag manufacturer, estimates that Chicoans alone—based on population and usage data from the U.S. International Trade Commission—goes through 35.5 million bags each year. Paper is not much better for the environment, but recycling rates are higher—around 20 percent of paper bags are recycled, vs. about 5 percent of plastic.

“We have to get past this idea of paper vs. plastic,” one member of the public offered. “It’s more about a behavioral shift, and that’s not likely to happen on its own.”

Task force member John Luvaas agreed. “It shouldn’t be paper or plastic,” he said. “It ought not be either over time.”

Member BT Chapman pointed to seatbelt laws as an indicator of how to move forward. Seatbelts were first installed in cars in the 1960s, but there wasn’t a law requiring their use until 1984, he said. In between was education. (He didn’t suggest 20 years of educating the public about plastic bags, however.)

Task force member Valerie Reddemann, who runs, countered his argument. “Education isn’t having a big enough impact,” she said. “We need a strategy that is effective.”

Luvaas added that “the city is not in a position to offer education” and suggested that a monetary incentive to bring your own bags—charging 10 to 25 cents per paper bag (charging for plastic bags is not an option, per state law)—is the best course of action.

Community watchdog Juanita Sumner, speaking from her chair in the audience, took issue with the task force’s desire to recommend legislation. She argued that trash trucks are largely to blame for the plastic-bag litter seen near landfills and that studies show banning plastic bags increases the use of paper bags, which aren’t any better on the environment.

“So, if you can’t convince people to do something, you have to force legislation down their throats?” she asked. “I resent that. I don’t see how any of you is qualified to pick and choose what bags I’m allowed to use.”

One distinction another member of the public made—and Luvaas repeated—was that an ordinance like those that have been passed in numerous jurisdictions around California would regulate the stores, not the public.

“If anyone’s being forced right now, it’s us being forced to subsidize the use of single-use bags by those who can’t be bothered to bring their own,” Luvaas said.

Early in the discussion, Reddemann explained that her main concern upon first discussing a ban or restriction on plastic bags was the potential of being sued by big plastic. Others shared her concern—after all, ChicoBag was sued last year by three plastic-bag manufacturers, and several cities have been sued in response to their desire to ban bags. ChicoBag and one of the bag companies settled out of court; the others backed out of the suit.

Reddemann, in researching for this night’s discussion, spoke with ChicoBag’s Keller, who put her in touch with an attorney working with, she said. That attorney offered help in drafting an ordinance for Chico that would be legally sound and lawsuit-free, based on legislation passed and tested in other communities.

Indeed, many cities and counties around California have bans or restrictions in place. Those include San Francisco, Long Beach, Malibu, Santa Monica, San Jose, Calabasas and Manhattan Beach, as well as Marin and Los Angeles counties. A legal battle brought by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition against Manhattan Beach over its ban landed in the California Supreme Court over the summer. The court ruled in favor of Manhattan Beach’s legislation, according to a Los Angeles Times report, sending a message to other municipalities that similar bans will stand up in court.

When it came time to vote, task force members Chapman and Toni Scott argued against regulation—“I don’t think this needs the city’s stamp of approval,” Scott said—but the other seven in attendance agreed to recommend the City Council discuss a restriction on single-use bags. Those include the handled, lightweight bags often offered at check stands at large stores and would exclude heavier plastic bags found in produce and meat departments.

Any restriction would likely affect large chain, grocery and pharmacy stores.

“More and more cities have this [type of legislation] sitting there waiting,” Reddemann said. “It’s one of the practical things we can do for the environment.”