Fairfax, Calif., is making its ban on noncompostable plastic bags voluntary because of an industry-backed lawsuit in Marin County Superior Court that could have required the city to conduct an environmental impact study, at an estimated cost of $100,000, before enacting the ban.
But councilman Lew Tremaine, who sponsored the ordinance that was scheduled to go into effect Feb. 10, said the setback is temporary and the next step will be to put the question before voters in November 2008.
``We are going to get what we want anyway,'' Tremaine said in a telephone interview Oct. 31. ``The plastics people have hardly won the war. We are just stepping back momentarily.''
A petition drive for a vote is being led by Oakland-based environmental group Green Sangha, which had pushed the city for the ban.
Tremaine said the council will modify the ordinance that enacted the ban at its meeting Nov. 7.
``We will insert language to make the ban voluntary, but discourage retailers from using plastic bags. We are not pushing paper bags, either. We are pushing retailers to use reusable canvas bags.''
It is the second time the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling has sued to stop plastic bag bans on the grounds that the California Environmental Quality Act requires public entities to document and consider the environmental impact of their decisions. The coalition's efforts to stop a proposed ban in Oakland, Calif., have led to a hearing scheduled the week of Jan. 14 before Alameda County Superior Judge Frank Roesch. That ban is set to take effect Jan. 18.
The coalition includes two members of the Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents several plastic bag manufacturers.
Tremaine said Fairfax, a city of just over 7,000 people, did not have the financial resources for a court battle.
``It would have cost us a whole lot of dollars to defend it, with questionable results. It is an abuse of the CEQA process. I hope Oakland slays this dragon in court,'' or it will be a tactic the industry continues to use.
Washington-based Donna Dempsey, PBA managing director, said lawsuits seeking environment impact assessments are intended to make communities consider the environmental and economic consequences of their bans, and to consider alternatives.
The success of the industry coalition in Fairfax comes as several other cities are considering whether to follow the lead of San Francisco, whose groundbreaking U.S. ban on plastic bags goes into effect Nov. 20.
The Annapolis City Council in Maryland is scheduled to vote Nov. 19 on a ban on all plastic and compostable bags.
After initially considering bans, the cities of Philadelphia and New York now are looking at recycling approaches instead.
``This is a start in the right direction,'' said PBA's Dempsey of the shift from bans to recycling approaches. ``Going in the direction of at-store recycling is a great collaborative way that government can work together with retailers, the community and the industry.''
However, Fairfax councilman Tremaine said it is ``too late'' for the industry to talk about educating the public about recycling.
``If they wanted to educate people about their product, they should have done when they introduced it,'' Tremaine said. ``It is too easily wind-blown and ends up in the environment. Look at the islands of them in the ocean. It is a product that doesn't need to be on the market. Let's get rid of these things and use something else - something reusable. We are not pushing public education. We are pushing zero waste.''