Plucking a hefty jewel from Santa Barbara’s supposed crown of environmental stewardship, the Carpinteria City Council voted on Monday evening for an across-the-board ban of single-use paper and plastic bags. The unanimous decision makes Carpinteria the first South Coast city to ban such bags and, once formalized, the ordinance will be the strictest of 14 similar laws throughout California.
All Carp businesses, from supermarkets and drug stores to restaurants and mom ‘n’ pop shops, will be required to stock and sell reusable totes as disposables phase out. Big retailers like Vons, CVS, and Rite-Aid will have three months to comply once the ordinance is enacted; smaller businesses, six months. The restrictions likely won’t apply to plastic produce bags at grocery stores, and there’ll be exemptions for those who can’t afford reusable bags. “I don’t think it’s going to be very difficult, and I think our community is ready for it,” said Councilmember Gregg Carty before casting his vote. “Let’s go.”
Carpinteria retailers distribute an estimated 1.5-million single-use bags annually, but that was up to 2.5 million before Albertsons stopped offering paper and plastic in April, a self-imposed move that was part of a corporate pilot program. While sales did dip at Albertsons for the first three weeks, people eventually embraced the idea. Most jurisdictions allow the use of recycled paper bags in one form or another, but the council — taking staff’s cue that paper bags are the 10th most collected item during coastal litter cleanup efforts — nixed them as well.
Long known to choke animals and landfills, pollute waterways, and wreak general havoc on delicate habitats, single-use bags have nevertheless enjoyed relative immunity from state and federal regulation, leaving cities and counties to draft their own laws. Those efforts have been tempered by the Coalition to Save the Plastic Bag, an industry-backed group that sues jurisdictions for not conducting environmental reviews before imposing bans. But a recent state court ruling in favor of Manhattan Beach and against the coalition determined that environmental review wasn’t required. The legal precedent put the Carpinteria city attorney’s office in a position to back the restriction without fear of lawsuit.
The city staff’s extensive report advised that the council not ban plastic and then impose a fee on paper, which Los Angeles County did and is now being sued by a South Carolina-based bag manufacturer. The report also recommended that stores under 10,000 square feet in size be allowed to carry single-use paper bags, but a letter from the California Grocer’s Association expressed concern over favoritism, so the council was convinced to make the rule uniform.
No one spoke out against the bag ban before the unanimous vote, instead lauding Carpinteria for having the foresight — and what many called the “bravery” — to move forward. The supportive remarks were met with audience applause. “I think we’ve all finally come to a place where we realize this is an issue, that it is a negative impact to the environment,” said Kathi King of the Community Environmental Council, “which is more than I can say for some of the other jurisdictions where I have been beating my head against the wall for a long time.”
Sandy Lejeune with the Surfrider Foundation, who’s spoken before the Santa Barbara City Council on the issue more than once, touched on the impact of rogue bags. “It costs a lot of money to clean up bags that don’t get disposed of properly,” he explained. “Every piece of plastic that’s ever been made is still out there. It doesn’t go away,” he went on, remarking that plastic only photodegrades, never biodegrades, meaning it eventually becomes so small fish eat plastic particles mistaken for plankton, introducing the toxic substance into human food streams.
Former Carpinteria mayor Donna Jordan, speaking on behalf of Carpinteria Beautiful, which has spearheaded the area’s reusable movement for years, stated, “Single-use bags are a disaster not waiting to happen, but happening … It’s really time to break the habit. We’ve tried education, tried persuasion, tried setting examples for people, but it just hasn’t been enough.”
As staff finalizes the ordinance over the next two to three months, Carp government employees will be speaking to and working with area businesses to ensure the switch goes as smoothly as possible. A public hearing will also be held. If all proceeds according to plan, Carpinteria will be sans-single-use by spring and summer of 2012.