Robin Wenrick forgot her reusable bags, so she loaded up a passel of plastic bags from Safeway on a recent visit.
The Berkeley resident said she knows that plastic bags litter the land, kill fish in the ocean and sit in landfills for a long, long time.
"If the stores charged for bags, I definitely would have gone home and gotten my reusable bags," Wenrick said. "I used to live in Italy, and that's what they do there."
And that's just what Berkeley is thinking about, as are many other cities across the state. A ban on plastic bags from retail stores, and a charge on paper bags, may go to the City Council in February.
Each year, at least 12 billion plastic bags are manufactured and sold in California, according to an industry group. In the Bay Area, about 1 million of the 3.8 billion plastic bags used end up in the Bay, according to an estimate by Save the Bay.
In just one day last year, volunteers picked up 15,000 plastic bags from the shores of the Bay in about three hours. This year in Emeryville, Albany and Richmond, volunteers picked up 5,017 plastic grocery bags during Coastal Cleanup Day in September, according to the city of Berkeley.
Californians use 600 plastic bags per second, but of the 12 billion produced, they recycle just 1 to 4 percent of them, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
The Berkeley plan is to ban all "take-away" plastic bags from retail stores, and allow stores to charge 15 to 25 cents for paper bags in the hopes of encouraging people to use reusable bags.
San Jose in September approved a ban in concept pending an environmental impact report to make sure an ensuing theoretical shift to using more paper bags does not pose even greater environmental problems.
Plastic bags have "become a persistent litter and wildlife hazard in our storm drains, creeks, bay and ocean," according to a November letter to business owners from Berkeley Recycling Program Manager Andy Schneider outlining the issues and asking for input on the new law.
It is the second time the city has attempted to pass a plastic bag ban. Berkeley deep-sixed a similar proposal in 2007 after Oakland, which passed a plastic bag ban, was sued by plastic bag manufacturers for failing to consider the environmental effects of an increased use of paper bags. Because it lost the suit, Oakland had to overturn its ban.
"We need to create a hybrid ordinance that will keep plastic bags out of our waterways but not have the unintended consequence of increasing paper bag use," Schneider said. "We know we have to ban plastic, and we can't shift everyone to paper because we know we will be sued."
Bryan Early, a policy associate for Californian's Against Waste in Sacramento, said that his group supports bans and that Berkeley's is a novel approach.
"No one in California has done a fee on paper bags," Early said. "If Berkeley is sued by the plastic bag manufacturers, they can say this ordinance is not going to result in an increase in paper bag use because of the fee approach, which I think is 100 percent correct."
Several cities across California, citing litter and polluted waterways as justification for banning plastic bags, have been sued by plastic bag manufacturers that claim a plastic bag ban would simply shift the emphasis to paper bags, which contribute to deforestation, require energy to make and transport, and create greenhouse gas emissions when the bags break down in the environment.
San Francisco, Fairfax and Malibu all have bans. Oakland, Los Angeles County, Manhattan Beach and Palo Alto enacted bans but were sued, with mixed outcomes. While Oakland scrapped its law, Palo Alto agreed not to expand its law; lawsuits are pending in Los Angeles County and Manhattan Beach.
The city of Los Angeles is now preparing an environmental impact report, as is San Jose, to try to prove that plastic is indeed more harmful than paper and go ahead with a ban.
While the initial study out of Los Angeles acknowledges the manufacture of paper bags harms the environment, it says paper is the lesser of the two evils: An increase in paper bags would be offset by the fact that paper bags carry more groceries and therefore fewer paper bags would be used. The study also says programs to encourage using reusable bags, such as Berkeley's fee, would decrease the use of paper bags.
Chris Peck, a spokesman for the waste management board, cast a different light on the paper-plastic debate differently.
"You see a lot of pictures of sea animals and birds caught up in plastic bags, but with paper bags, that doesn't happen," Peck said. "Paper gets soggy and it disintegrates."
Banning the plastic bag is a bad idea, according to Peter Grande, owner of Command Packaging in Los Angeles, which makes plastic grocery bags.
"If you ban plastic, the paper bags are going to be far worse for the environment," Grande said. "I think the real issue is be careful of what you wish for. It becomes very dangerous for the government to be that involved in our lives."
In Berkeley, Schneider said the city has contacted retailers for input and filed a mitigated negative declaration with the state in hopes of avoiding a costly environmental impact report.
A public hearing on the law was held Oct. 19; the written comment period ended Nov. 3.
The Berkeley law says no retail store can provide plastic checkout bags, and paper bags must contain 40 percent recycled paper. Stores must charge a fee for using paper bags, it says, and it encourages them to sell reusable bags for future use.
While cities around the state align their plastic bag bans to fend off legal assaults, grocers are signaling their tentative support for a statewide ban.