SAN JOSE -- Almost a year after San Jose enacted one of the nation's farthest-reaching bans on disposable plastic carryout bags, city officials are citing a dramatic drop in litter and setting their sights on eliminating polystyrene foam to-go boxes starting in 2014.
Litter surveys before and after the plastic carryout bag ban took effect in January found trash had been reduced from 59 percent on city streets to 89 percent in the storm drain system, according to a report to be heard by the City Council's transportation and environment committee Monday.
"This is one of the most aggressive bans in the country, and it's definitely producing the results we were hoping for," said Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow.
The report added that "residents have changed their behavior and are more frequently shopping with reusable bags," and that "there are no reports of sustained negative impacts on local retailers." Fewer than 4 percent of businesses observed were failing to follow the new rules, it said.
The plastic bag industry was skeptical of the city law's reported success.
"I don't know how they're claiming that," said Donna Dempsey, spokeswoman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a trade association of plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers.
Dempsey pointed to an August report on Los Angeles County's plastic bag ban by the National Center for Policy Analysis, a free-market think tank, which said sales fell 3.3 percent in unincorporated areas affected by the ban and jumped 3.4 percent for retailers in unaffected cities.
But San Jose isn't done dealing restrictions on disposable plastic carriers. Next on the list: plastic foam food containers made from expanded polystyrene -- EPS -- that restaurants give customers for their takeout orders or uneaten leftovers.
City officials hope to present a draft ordinance to the City Council in February to phase out foam food service ware at restaurants, starting in January 2014 for large establishments and in 2015 for smaller eateries.
Councilman Sam Liccardo, who chairs the Transportation and Environment Committee, says the city should move the effective date six months earlier, noting that the city has been considering it for years now and 58 California cities and counties already have banned EPS containers.
"It's fair to say this horse has been beaten and it's time to decide whether to go forward or not," Liccardo said.
San Jose began targeting plastic bag and container litter years ago, citing complaints that the durable totes are typically tossed rather than recycled and linger in the environment where they harm wildlife. The council voted in 2009 to ban most plastic bags as well as disposable paper bags, which environmentalists say contribute to deforestation and global warming.
The final version the city approved in January 2011 was considered the broadest in the San Francisco Bay Area. It banned carryout plastic bags not just at grocers but most retailers -- some 5,000 citywide -- and also required them to charge a fee for paper carryout bags, currently 10 cents. The ban exempts nonprofits and restaurants, and allows "protective" plastic or paper bags without handles for meat, produce and medicine. San Jose, city officials said, was the largest U.S. city to adopt such a ban.
At the time, few large cities had enacted plastic bag bans. San Francisco had a more limited 2007 plastic bag ban for large grocery stores and pharmacies. Palo Alto also banned them at large grocers. Santa Clara County followed San Jose in approving a plastic bag ban that took effect at the same time as the city's, affecting unincorporated areas.
Since then, Sunnyvale, the county's second-largest city, approved a bag ban that took effect in June for large retailers. Mountain View, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Milpitas and Morgan Hill are exploring similar laws.
Elsewhere, San Francisco expanded its law this year, San Mateo and Alameda counties are working on their own ordinances and bag bans are in the works in big cities from Los Angeles to Boston.
San Jose officials however are urging local cities to adopt tougher plastic bag bans like San Jose's. Romanow said the city's ban has proved so effective she'll likely recommend against a scheduled 2014 increase in the paper-bag fee to 25 cents.
Though San Jose officials have been eyeing an EPS ban for some time, they have held off to study the potential costs and impacts to businesses.
Such bans already are in effect or in the works elsewhere. Oakland and San Francisco banned polystyrene food containers in 2007, and Palo Alto in 2010. San Mateo County banned them in 2011 and Santa Clara County approved a ban that will take effect in February.
San Jose officials expect the ordinance to include "common exemptions" for prepackaged foods packed outside the city, meat and produce trays, ice chests and coolers, and to include financial "hardship exemptions."
But the proposed San Jose law comes just as city businesses -- particularly restaurants -- brace for a voter-approved 25-percent increase in the minimum wage requirement that will take effect in March.
Dan Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, which opposed the wage hike and is fighting the EPS ban, said those measures on top of new sales taxes and health care costs will wallop small eateries.
"In terms of the costs of doing business in San Jose, they're rising sharply in 2013 and beyond," Conway said. "These incremental costs add up and are most harmful to the mom and pops who own the deli, the taqueria. Restaurants are low-margin businesses, so every time you make it more expensive to hire and pay employees and to buy take out containers, it makes it harder to do business."
But Romanow said the city plans to ease into the ban over the next three years to give businesses time to adjust, and took the trouble to study alternative containers to show them feasible alternatives.
"We know there are lots of costs on small businesses these days," Romanow said. "There are lots of different packaging alternatives. We view our role as helping them make those choices."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
San Jose officials are citing dramatic litter-reduction progress in the first year of the city's aggressive ban on plastic carryout bags. City litter surveys in 2010 and 2011 before the law and in 2012 since it took effect showed:
Based on observations, the city also reported that:
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a plastic-bag industry group, questioned the city findings.
San Jose officials now are targeting expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam food containers for phaseout starting in 2014 for large restaurants and 2015 for smaller eateries. The City Council's Transportation and Environment Committee will consider the issue at 1:30 p.m. Monday in the council committee rooms at City Hall.
The agenda and report links can be found at: