Will Sacto finally ban plastic bags?
Council members, local environmentalists work to prohibit ‘urban tumbleweeds' from major grocery stores
It’s far from official, but Sactown could have a brand-new bag starting later this year: The city is considering a ban on single-use plastic grocery sacks at local stores.
City council members Steve Cohn and Kevin McCarty are behind the pitch, which goes before the council’s Law and Legislation Committee next month. This is the first step in creating a new city ordinance that could soon be passed down the road.
If the council green-lights the law—and it’s still a big “if” at this point—Sacramento would join a growing number of California local governments in banning plastic and placing a small fee on paper bags. Eight counties and nearly 50 cities have already passed similar ordinances.
McCarty said the ban would curb litter and also streamline Sacramento’s recycling system. Waste Management, the city’s contracted recycler, has complained about plastic bags disrupting its sorting facility on Fruitridge Road. The company has told McCarty that it shuts down for 90 minutes every day just to keep plastic bags from clogging the sorting machines.
“There’s an economic issue for the city with the efficiency of doing recycling out there,” said McCarty.
Environmentalists are giving a thumbs-up to the idea. They say plastic grocery sacks often end up in the ocean where marine life can ingest the bags, which aren’t biodegradable and leach toxic materials into the water.
Environment California, an advocacy group that does work in Sacramento, has been canvassing city neighborhoods for months to drum up support for the ban. Dan Jacobson, the group’s legislative director, has been working with Cohn and McCarty over the past year to outlaw what he calls “urban tumbleweeds.”
“Certainly, nothing we use for five minutes should end up polluting our environment for hundreds of years,” said Jacobson.
Single-use plastic grocery sacks can be recycled, but statistics show that most people still toss them in the trash. California’s retailers distribute about 19 billion plastic bags every year, but less than 10 percent get recycled, according to CalRecycle, the state agency in charge of waste reduction.
“They end up polluting our rivers and streams and oceans to such an extent that you can’t do either a river cleanup or a beach cleanup without plastic bags being one of the top 10 or top five [most] commonly found products that we’re cleaning up,” said Jacobson.
A ban on plastic and a fee on paper grocery sacks would probably encourage a shift in shopping habits for Sacramento’s consumers. San Jose, which outlawed plastic and slapped a 10-cent minimum charge on paper last year, found that residents switched to reusable shopping bags in large numbers after the city passed the law.
“The real purpose is, in addition to trying to keep those plastic bags from spoiling the environment, is also to try to encourage reusable bags,” said Cohn.
The question is whether business owners would balk at taking the plastic sack out of Sacto.
According to Cohn and McCarty, they believe many larger grocery chains are behind them. But when asked about the ban, most of the city’s major supermarkets, such as Safeway, Raley’s and Save Mart Supermarkets, either took no position or referred questions to the California Grocers Association, a lobby for the food industry.
The answer so far? Meh.
In the statement emailed to SN&R, the grocers association said it won’t take a stance on the ban until the city releases more details; everyone will learn more at the committee meeting on February 5. However, in potentially a bad sign for Cohn and McCarty, the group sounded hesitant to endorse anything other than a statewide ban on plastic bags.
“In order to avoid negative impacts, we believe local governments should focus on statewide regulation to avoid localized confusion for consumers and impacts to businesses,” wrote spokesman Dave Heylen in the email.
The Sacramento Metro Chamber, which represents many of the capital’s other businesses, also isn’t thrilled with the idea.
“Most likely, it’s not something we’re going to be all that enthused about, but we’re willing to entertain the reasons behind it and maybe come up with something that does work,” said Dennis Rogers, senior vice president of the chamber.
Still, opposition could dissipate if city staffers actually draft an ordinance. Cohn doesn’t want the ban to hurt local businesses, and the councilman said he’s willing to create exemptions for smaller shops when it comes to banning plastic—something other governments have done in California.
“We want the city to be viewed as business friendly and not overly burdensome,” Cohn said. “Those are issues we’ll definitely take into account.”