Santa Monica businesses will no longer be able to give out light-weight plastic shopping bags, under an ordinance passed Tuesday by the City Council. The ordinance – which passed by a unanimous 4 votes – came after three years of delays and threats of lawsuits from plastic industry interests.
During deliberations, with dozens of young people and environmentalists and one lawyer from the Save The Plastic Bag coalition in attendance, Mayor Richard Bloom thanked city staff for their work in crafting the new regulations.
“Would we have liked to have done it sooner? You bet,” Bloom said. “But we’ve got an ordinance that we think will hold up to a legal challenge. And that’s the critical thing.”
Known for its progressive politics, Santa Monica has joined a half dozen other California cities in banning plastic bags out of concern for the environment.
Thin plastic bags are difficult to recycle and control where they go. They get blown about by the wind and litter our streets and beaches. Eventually they wind up in the ocean and cause damage to marine life, environmental officials say. Municipalities which have adopted or are considering similar ordinances include San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley, Long Beach, Palo Alto and the County of Los Angeles.
The ban only applies plastic bags that are less than 2.25 millimeters thick, such as those typically given out by grocers and pharmacies, which are intended for one-time use. Markets will be allowed to offer paper bags made from recycled content for a minimum fee of 10 cents per bag – money which will be kept by the stores to offset expenses.
But the main purpose of the fee is to create a disincentive for using the disposable bags. Instead, the new ordinance is intended to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to the store
Not included in the ban are light weight “product bags”, such as those found in grocer’s produce sections. Heavier plastic bags commonly used by retail shops are also not included. Also exempt from the ban are carry-out food business, since hot liquid seeping through a paper bag could cause injuries.
The ordinance will kick in near the end of February but won’t be enforced until September. In the meantime, the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE) will help businesses and their customers make the transition.
In the weeks and months ahead, OSE staffers will meet with the businesses and the public to educate people about the new rules and hand out reusable cloth shopping bags. In a model of sustainability, the OSE bags are made from scrap cloth from L.A.’s garment district and are sewn locally by vets at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration.
The outreach, is expected to last about two years. City staff began working on the ban in early 2008 and returned to the council with a proposed ordinance in January 2009. Following the advice of the city attorney, council put off voting and instead moved for a public hearing and a California Environmental Quality Act review to fend off lawsuits from plastic-bag interests.
Last summer, California Representative Julia Brownley sponsored an assembly bill for a similar ban statewide. But the bill was voted down by the California legislature.
The city was again poised to pass the ban last fall but ran into complications with the November passage of California’s Proposition 26. At that time, Santa Monica’s ordinance would have taken part of the fees collected by grocers for paper bags and put the money in the city coffers. But Proposition 26 redefined such levies as taxes requiring voter approval.
Tuesday’s passage of the ordinance may not mark the final chapter as legal challenges could likely occur.