Robin Wenrick forgot her reusable bags, so she ended up with a passel of plastic ones on a recent visit to Safeway. The Berkeley resident said she's heard plastic bags litter the land, kill fish 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. 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. But Californians recycle just 1 to 4 percent of them, says the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
In the Bay Area, about 1 million of the 3.8 billion plastic bags used each year end up in San Francisco Bay, according to an estimate by Save the Bay.
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. The goal: encouraging people to use reusable bags.
San Jose in September approved a ban pending an environmental impact report, to make sure an ensuing shift to using more paper bags wouldn't pose even greater environmental problems.
This is the second time Berkeley has tried to pass a plastic bag ban. The city 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," said Berkeley's recycling program manager, Andy Schneider. "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 Berkeley's is a novel approach. "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," Early said.
Plastic bag manufacturers have claimed in lawsuits that paper bags contribute to deforestation, require more energy to make and transport and create greenhouse gas emissions when they break down in the environment.
San Francisco and Malibu have bans. Oakland, Los Angeles County 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 elsewhere.
The city of Los Angeles is now preparing an environmental impact report, as is San Jose, to try to prove plastic is indeed more harmful than paper.
While the initial study out of Los Angeles acknowledges paper bag manufacturing harm the environment, it says paper is the lesser of two evils: An increase in paper bags would be offset by the fact that they carry more groceries, so fewer bags would be used. The study also says programs to encourage using reusable bags 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.
"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."
Others argue banning the plastic bag is a bad idea. "The paper bags are going to be far worse for the environment," said Peter Grande, owner of Command Packaging in Los Angeles, which makes plastic grocery bags.
"I think the real issue is be careful of what you wish for," Grande said. "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.
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, the law 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.
Dave Heylen, spokesman for the California Grocers Association, said members are not as worried about having to buy more paper bags as they are about having to negotiate various plastic bag bans across California.
"We want it dealt with at the state level, so it's consistent," he said.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has come out in favor of a statewide ban, said spokesman Mike Naple, "and he looks forward to negotiating with the Legislature."