San Jose became the largest U.S. city to ban plastic carry-out bags Tuesday with an ordinance that supporters said was the most far-reaching in the country aimed at encouraging shoppers to bring reusable totes.
The ordinance, approved on a 10-1 vote after two years of study, wouldn't become effective until Jan. 1, 2012, to allow for more public outreach. It would prohibit retailers from giving out disposable plastic bags at the check stand and require them to charge for paper bags.
"This is a great step," said Councilman Sam Liccardo. "It's an opportunity to lead on an important environmental issue."
Councilman Pete Constant, the lone dissenter, said the council had "increased the burden and cost for people in the midst of one of the deepest recessions we've experienced in our lifetime."
Reaction from downtown shoppers was mixed.
"I don't have a whole lot of money to be charged for paper bags," said Pine Watt, 18, a freshman at San Jose State.
Nimfa Sanchez, 74, walked into the San Fernando Street Safeway from a downpour and wondered how she would fare without waterproof plastic bags.
"How am I going to run after my groceries that roll out of a paper bag on a night like this?" asked Sanchez, who uses a walker. "Besides, I already recycle."
But Julianna Iran, 24, who was examining lettuce at the Safeway, pronounced the idea "terrific. If it's going to cost money to get a paper bag, I'll be more likely to bring my cloth bag."
And Luke Vong, 47, a civil engineer walking out of the store with a double plastic bag filled with groceries, called the ban "good for the environment."
Most retailers affected
Opinions also varied inside the council chamber. Samantha Dabish, representing the Neighborhood Market Association, urged the council to include an exemption for smaller stores that she said would face higher costs from the ban. But Timothy James of the California Grocers Association said grocers appreciated amendments woven into the ban to allow bags for pharmaceuticals and meats.
San Jose isn't the first city to ban plastic bags; San Francisco led the way in 2007. But San Jose's ordinance goes further than others, said David Lewis, executive director of the environmental group Save the Bay.
The ordinance covers most retailers, not just groceries and pharmacies, and discourages disposable paper bags by requiring merchants to charge customers for them. He said the city ordinance will be a model for other cities and counties.
Lewis called disposable plastic bags "one of the most visible and unsightly forms of pollution in the bay." He said the Bay Area uses 3.8 billion plastic bags a year and about 1 million end up in San Francisco Bay, where they harm birds, fish and other animals.
Lisa Bickford, 46, of San Jose, came to show her support for a ban by attending the meeting in a "bag monster" costume made out of 500 disposable plastic bags.
"I live to be 1,000 years old, and I am synthetic so I break down slowly," Bickford said in mock protest. "I will be here long after any of you."
Critics such as the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic-bag makers, say their product is being unfairly maligned, noting it can be recycled and turned into items such as shopping carts and composite lumber. They say government officials should promote recycling bags rather than banning them.
But Lewis said recycling hasn't worked, with only about 5 percent recycled in California.
"People consider it trash, not something of value," he said. "That's why it ends up on the street."
Industry lobbying has helped thwart efforts to ban plastic bags statewide. A state Assembly bill to ban single-use plastic carry-out bags from grocery and drugstores died this year for lack of support in the Senate, despite backing from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But that has only spurred local bans. In addition to San Francisco, Palo Alto, Oakland, Malibu and Los Angeles County have approved similar measures, while Fremont, Sunnyvale, Marin County and Santa Clara County are among those considering them.
Opponents have sued or threatened litigation against some cities over plastic bag bans, arguing that they only encourage use of disposable paper sacks. Plastic-bag backers contend that paper is more environmentally harmful because of deforestation and the energy needed to manufacture wood pulp.
Lawsuits and legal threats over bans in Oakland, Palo Alto and Fairfax argue that the cities should have conducted a full analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act before taking action. Oakland suspended its ban; Fairfax, in Marin County, made it voluntary. And Palo Alto agreed in a settlement to conduct a complete environmental review if it expands its ban beyond grocers.
San Jose's ban underwent a full environmental analysis, which Councilman Kansen Chu says will make it more legally sound. Chu pushed for the city to pass a bag law after returning from a trip to Taiwan, where merchants charge customers for disposable carry-out bags.
The chemistry council also argued that the measure would violate restrictions on fees that voters approved in November under Proposition 26. But City Attorney Rick Doyle disagreed because the city doesn't receive the paper bag fee; merchants do.
The ordinance exempts restaurants and nonprofit secondhand stores such as the Salvation Army. City officials said paper or reusable bags may be impractical for carrying moist, messy takeout foods, and that secondhand stores already reduce waste by encouraging people to reuse things.
The ban also doesn't prohibit plastic bags made available to protect meat, produce or bulk foods, nor does it prohibit sales of sandwich or trash bags.
Retailers could face fines of $500 to $1,000 for violating the ordinance.
Mayor Chuck Reed urged environmentalists and neighborhood groups to keep track of how many bags wind up in city creeks after the ban, saying, "It's really important to demonstrate that we've addressed the problem."
Mercury News staff writer Tracy Seipel contributed to this report. Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346.
Here are highlights of San Jose's new bag ban:
Source: City of San Jose