Santa Clara County, Calif., recently joined cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Palo Alto in banning single-use plastic shopping bags from major retail stores. The San Francisco Bay Area County will also require these stores to charge a 15-cent fee per paper bag provided to customers.
The County’s ordinance, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2012, affects stores in the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County – not stores under the jurisdiction of individual cities in the county.
By excluding restaurants, fast food establishments and social and nonprofit organizations, the ban applies to approximately 50 to 65 retailers, according to the County’s estimates. Also exempted from the ban are plastic or paper bags for produce, meat and frozen foods, as well as dry cleaning bags and plastic bags used to protect delivered newspapers.
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If customers do not bring their own bags to the store, retailers will provide them with paper bags – required to be made of 40 percent recycled content – and charge customers 15 cents per bag, unless they are enrolled in federal assistance programs such as the food stamp program.
The ordinance comes after two years of research by County staff on how to address the litter problem created by single-use shopping bags.
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“Two years ago, I brought the issue of banning single-use bags to the Board of Supervisors because I was deeply disturbed about the environmental impacts that single-use bags were having on our county and our waterways,” said County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who championed the ordinance.
Staff provided extensive outreach to residents on the environmental benefits of reusable bags and handed out more than 80,000 free reusable bags, said Elizabeth Constantino, manager of the County’s waste management program. The County also tried to set up a voluntary ban, asking stores if they wanted to voluntarily stop using plastic bags, and only store signed up.
Staff and the Board eventually determined that the most effective way to incentivize shoppers to switch to reusable bags was by both banning plastic bags and charging for paper bags.
“There is no amount of education and outreach you can do to get the kind of results we need – national studies show that. And the voluntary ban didn’t work either,” Constantino said.
“We acknowledge that both paper and plastic have their own environmental impacts,” Constantino went on to say. “That’s why we banned plastic bags and put a fee on paper bags. But there is a complexity to recycling plastic bags that paper bags don’t have. There are limited markets (for plastic bags), and bags collected at grocery stores can get contaminated with food or other plastics.”
WATCH: How Plastic Bags are Recycled
Makers of plastic bags and industry organizations such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC), however, criticize plastic bag bans for limiting consumer choice and harming the growth of plastic bag recycling programs.
“Far from being single-use products, bags are reused by more than 90 percent of consumers for various household tasks such as trash can liners… And what people don’t reuse can be recycled at more than 12,000 locations across the U.S.,” said Tim Shestek, the ACC’s senior director for state affairs.
Critics of plastic bag bans also say manufacturing and transporting plastic bags is more environmentally friendly than producing paper bags.
Last September, California lawmakers voted down a law to ban single-use plastic bags statewide.