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Bag ban expansion proposed in Palo Alto, Calif.

By: Gayle S. Putrich

March 15, 2013

WASHINGTON — In spite of a 2008 ordinance that eliminated single-use plastic bags from Palo Alto, Calif., grocery store checkout lanes, city officials say they are still seeing too many bags in local waterways.

"What we're seeing is about 60 percent of the litter in the watershed are different types of plastics, especially bags," said Julie Weiss, a Palo Alto City environmental specialist.

The city's answer is to expand the ban this year to include retailers, restaurants, delis, food trucks and more. The 10-cent charge for paper bags would continue but would increase 25 cents one year after the ban takes effect — July 1 for retailers and Nov. 1 for restaurants. Restaurants would still be permitted to use thin barrier bags plastic bags for liquid take-out items such as soup.

While Weiss said about one-third of local restaurants already use paper bags for take-out and the Palo Alto government has not seen much resistance to the expansion from local eateries, thought "the California Restaurant Association has not been thrilled about it," she said. And at least one lawsuit is already in the works.

Stephen Joseph and his Save the Plastic Bag Coalition says that not only will expanding the plastic bag law not solve Palo Alto's creek and watershed litter problem, restaurants' cutlery — anything from plates to forks to carry-out containers — can only be regulated at the state level.

"We're going to sue them over the restaurant part of it," Joseph said. "Only the state can regulate carry-out bags under the California Retail Food Code. There is precedent on this."

The California State Supreme Court has already ruled the City of Los Angeles cannot regulate carry-out bags and the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition also got a settlement in a similar suit in Carpinteria, Calif., last summer, resulting in a softening of the ordinance to permit plastic bags in restaurants. A similar case in San Francisco is still under appeal.

Joseph also maintains that the city's litter problems won't be solved with an expanded bag ban.

"The only way to deal with garbage is to pick it up," he said. "You can't ban your way into a litter-free world."

Weiss admits that the lack of litter progress is due in part to bags from neighboring communities blowing into creeks and trash thrown from cars driving Hwy. 101 through Palo Alto along the baylands and creeks, but says something has to be done to protect local wildlife and watersheds.

"At the end of the day, it's not that people want to have a plastic bag, they want a bag that will protect the product they just bought," she said. "I know that these changes are impacting the plastics industry… Maybe it's a different kind of product that we need."