Top Stories of 2012 | No. 2: Retail use of plastic bags banned

Ordinance evoked cries of inconvenience, but its supporters say it greatly helps the environment

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comDecember 30, 2012 

Editor’s note: This is No. 2 in The Tribune’s Top Five Stories of 2012 as selected by the newsroom staff. Each day through New Year’s Day, we will count down to the top story of the year.

Somewhere in San Luis Obispo County this morning, a shopper will grab her purse, lock her car and hurry into the grocery store thinking about bread, milk and other purchases.

As she takes a few steps inside, she will stop abruptly, stand there like an exclamation point and mutter, “Gosh darn it! I forgot my shopping bags.”

Or this could happen to any male shopper. The inconvenience of having to schlep your own shopping bag into the store rather than having the grocer provide you with one gratis does not discriminate; it affects all customers.

It is new in this county. Its supporters figure that shoppers will get used to it, the way Americans got used to separating their trash into recyclables and nonrecyclables back in the 1970s.

Until that happens, however, there is going to be a persistent undercurrent of grumbling hereabouts. The law banning plastic bags at checkout was far from universally popular.

The restrictive, behavior-changing ordinance, which took effect Oct. 1, riveted the attention of county residents for months, drawing out impassioned people on both sides of the issue and even inviting lawsuits, which went nowhere.

Bill Worrell, executive director of the Integrated Waste Management Authority, which adopted the ban, said it drew the greatest number of comments the body has ever received.

The authority — a little-known agency that includes representatives from each of the county’s seven cities, county government and community services districts — voted for the ban in January. It took effect in October.

It outlaws plastic bags at most stores in the county, although stores can distribute paper ones if they charge customers 10 cents per bag.

The ordinance affects supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores and those with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space, including home improvement, sporting goods and department stores.

It does not apply to restaurants, nonretail businesses or industrial operations.

The local ban is one of many that are passing through governments in California and across the nation. Their impetus is the colossal amount of damage that discarded plastic bags has done to the environment.

Supporters presented evidence of clogged streams, littered riverbanks and a vast, floating island of trash, known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” adrift in the Pacific Ocean. They said more than 1 million marine mammals and seabirds die annually from plastic ingestion or entanglement.

Opponents, on the other hand, viewed the ordinance as yet another “nanny state” attempt by the government to regulate an individual’s behavior. Many people showed up at the hearing to protest that their freedoms were being whittled away.

Opponents also said the environmental damage was being exaggerated and that the ban created an inconvenience for shoppers.

They fought ferociously, and some spoke of trying to persuade their city council or community services district to secede from the Integrated Waste Management Authority. None did.

The California Grocers Association supported the ordinance.

The board vote to adopt the ban was contentious, but it did pass. As the new year rolls forward, there are no doubt people who still grouse about it, but there are also others who don’t mind suffering the little bit of personal inconvenience for what they perceive as a larger good.

The Tribune's top stories of 2012

1. PG&E's plans to conduct seismic surveys offshore of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant | 2. The ban on disposable plastic bags at SLO County retailers | 3. Accreditation and budget challenges at Cuesta College | 4. The Lisa Solomon controversy in the Paso Robles Police Department | 5. Violence by patients on staff at Atascadero State Hospital

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