OAKLAND _ City officials hope a proposed new law will prompt shoppers to answer the question of paper or plastic at the grocery store check stand with a resounding no thanks.

The Oakland City Council's Public Works Committee Tuesday endorsed a plan to ban petroleum-based non-biodegradable shopping bags in an effort to reduce the amount of waste Oakland sends to landfills and prevent the plastic bags from polluting the environment.

Authored by Councilmembers Nancy Nadel (Downtown-West Oakland) and Jean Quan (Montclair-Laurel), the ordinance encourages people to bring their own reusable totes to bag their groceries because of the devastating impact of all of the plastic products _ including bags _ used once and tossed away.

Councilmember Desley Brooks (Eastmont-Seminary) abstained from the otherwise unanimous vote, saying she did not have enough information to cast a vote.

"There are a wealth of questions that need to be answered," Brooks said. "There is no need to rush."

The ban would apply to stores with gross annual sales of more than $1 million, which would include all supermarkets and chain drug stores.

Originally, the ordinance covered only stores with more than $2 million in sales, but was changed after an analysis showed that would not apply to all of Oakland's groceries, said Carol Misseldine, Oakland's sustainability coordinator.


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If approved by the council, the ordinance would go into effect in six months and would require stores to offer shoppers paper bags that are 100 percent recyclable and contain at least 40 percent recycled material.

Scofflaws could be fined up to $500.

"It's not going to solve all of the problems," said Councilmember Henry Chang Jr. (At-large). "But its one step to show the city is environmentally responsible."

More than a dozen supporters of the proposed law urged the committee to approve the ban, saying it was a good first step toward protecting Oakland's quality of life and environment.

Richard Bailey, the director of the Lake Merritt Institute, said discarded plastic bags hurt the lake's delicate ecosystem.

"I hope this ordinance puts me out of business," Bailey said. "I'm tired of picking these bags out of Lake Merritt."

However, representatives of bag manufacturers and grocers criticized the ordinance, contending it would have unintended environmental impacts by increasing the number of paper bags manufactured and recycled.

Tim James, of the California Grocers Association, said it costs store owners six cents for every paper bag, as opposed to one cent for a plastic bag.

"Eventually, that will be reflected in food prices in Oakland," James said, adding that the ban could also cause grocery stores think twice before opening new locations in Oakland because of the increasing cost of business.

Several opponents of the proposed ordinance urged the committee to wait for a new law requiring all grocery stores to recycle plastic bags brought back by shoppers and to sell reusable totes to go into effect before banning plastic bags.

Despite their negative environmental implications, Misseldine said paper bags were preferable to plastic sacks because Oakland residents can include them with the rest of their curbside recycling.

Biodegradable and compostable bags are also an acceptable alternative to plastic sacks.

Originally, the ordinance encouraged stores to charge customers 5 cents for single-use paper bags to reflect their environmental costs and encourage shoppers to rely on reusable sacks. That provision was removed on the advice of the city's attorneys that state law prohibited such a fee.

Each year, Californians use 19 billion plastic shopping bags and throw away 600 per second, according to city officials. A law banning the bags in San Francisco will go into effect this fall, and similar measures are under consideration in Berkeley and Marin County.

Last year, the council banned Styrofoam take-out food containers and adopted a goal of zero waste by 2020. In addition, the council formed a task force designed to reduce Oakland's dependence on oil.

The full council is scheduled to consider the law at 7 p.m. July 3 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, One Frank Ogawa Plaza.

E-mail Heather MacDonald at hmacdonald@oaklandtribune.com.