Plastic bags banned in San Luis Obispo County

Controversial ordinance applies to most retail stores and would take effect in October, but opponents are already threatening legal action

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comJanuary 11, 2012 

After a four-hour hearing that capped months of debate, the county’s little-known waste management board voted Wednesday evening to ban plastic shopping bags at most stores in San Luis Obispo County.

Unless blocked by litigation, which has already been threatened, or a referendum, retailers will not be permitted to distribute plastic shopping bags at most supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, warehouse stores or other shops.

The ordinance, set to take effect in October, allows retailers to distribute paper bags, but only if they charge customers 10 cents apiece.

Opponents of the ordinance immediately said they would challenge it in court. The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition said after the meeting that it would file a lawsuit within 30 days. The coalition served a “threat of litigation” to the board.

The ban was passed in an 8-5 vote by the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority.

The waste authority board includes all five members of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, one representative from each of the seven local incorporated cities and one member representing local service districts.

The Wednesday hearing culminated a months-long intensive lobbying effort by advocates on both sides of the issue that drew unprecedented attention to the hitherto obscure board.

The hearing drew 80 speakers, of whom 55 supported the ordinance. Some speakers on both sides of the issue claimed they spoke for hundreds of others who could not attend.

Proponents of the ban argued that discarded plastic has become ubiquitous and does incalculable damage.

They said many marine mammals and seabirds die from plastic ingestion or entanglement from littered bags, and Wednesday some of the dozens of people who turned out to support the ordinance illustrated their assertions with slides showing suffering wildlife and polluted shorelines.

Environmentalists also alluded to a large floating body of discarded plastic and other debris in the Pacific Ocean between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii that they call the Great Garbage Patch.

Several speakers assailed the plastics industry, which has tens of millions of dollars invested in plastic bags and has been fighting similar ordinances around the country.

The California Grocers Association endorsed the proposal, as did representatives of local landfills, who said plastic bags are a problem for them.

Opponents of the ordinance said the ban was unnecessary and that it would intrude on individual choice.

Many added that it’s an example of big, overreaching government, with one of them calling it “tyranny wrapped in environmentalism.”

Others said it would create inconvenience for shoppers.

A few critics also said it creates a new threat: food-borne or other illnesses caused by improper use of the reusable cloth bags that some shoppers would use to replace the plastic bags.

They asserted that cloth bags have been known to harbor bacteria from leaking foods or food residue, or harbor molds if they aren’t washed after each use.

Supporters of the ban pooh-poohed that latter assertion, arguing that the plastic and chemical industries were behind it. They accused opponents of fear-mongering and using the allegation as a diversion from the real intent of the ordinance, to manage waste.

A representative of the Grocers Association said its members have never had a complaint of that sort about reusable bags.

Officials with the waste authority and environmentalists who have promoted the proposal point out that millions of plastic bags are used countywide and that many are not reused.

Environmentalists have been aggressively persuading local governments to adopt similar ordinances and have succeeded in dozens of cities and towns across the United States.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban the free distribution of plastic bags.

Other cities and counties across the country have followed, including Seattle, Portland, Ore., San Jose, Los Angeles County, and Washington, D.C. Smaller cities such as Santa Monica, Long Beach, Carpinteria and Fairfax have enacted some form of ban or limitation on the use of plastic bags.

How they voted ...

Voting YES:

  • Arroyo Grande City Councilman Tim Brown
  • County Supervisor Bruce Gibson
  • County Supervisor Adam Hill
  • County Supervisor Jim Patterson
  • Grover Beach City Councilwoman Phyllis Molnar
  • Pismo Beach City Councilman Ted Ehring
  • San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh
  • Templeton Community Services District board member Greg O'Sullivan, representing services districts countywide

Voting NO:

  • Atascadero City Councilman Tom O'Malley
  • County Supervisor Frank Mecham
  • County Supervisor Paul Teixeira
  • Morro Bay City Councilwoman Carla Borchard
  • Paso Robles City Councilman John Hamon

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