Decision due on plastic bag ban

San Luis Obispo County's waste management board will decide Wednesday whether to ban single-use plastic bags in most stores — a change that would affect the lives of just about everyone in the county who shops.

Should the proposed ordinance go into effect, it would prohibit the bags at most supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience and big-box stores.

It would allow retailers to charge 10 cents per paper bag. The hope, however, is that customers will substitute cloth bags when they go shopping. An education campaign to encourage a change in behavior has begun.

The ordinance as worded would have the law in place by Oct. 1 throughout the county.

The decision will be made by the Integrated Waste Management Authority board of directors, which consists of all five county supervisors, a representative from each of the county’s seven cities and a board member who represents the county’s special districts.

The question has drawn intense public interest, and the obscure governmental body has received scores of emails pro and con.

Bill Worrell, the authority’s executive director, said the proposed ban has drawn the greatest number of comments the body has ever received.

Proponents of the bag ban assert that discarded plastic has become ubiquitous in the environment and does incalculable damage. They say that more than 1 million marine mammals and seabirds die annually from plastic ingestion or entanglement.

At previous hearings, proponents of the ban, including but not limited to environmentalists, have illustrated their assertions with slides showing suffering wildlife and polluted shorelines.

They also allude to a floating body of discarded plastic in the Pacific Ocean between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii. Worrell said it is known as “the garbage patch,” and observers believe it is the size of Texas.Worrell estimates that residents of San Luis Obispo County use 130 million plastic bags annually.

The California Grocers Association is on board with the ordinance.

“CGA believes the San Luis Obispo County bag ordinance respects retail operations and provides consumers free and low-cost carryout bag options,” spokesman Dave Heylen said in a statement. “CGA also appreciates the regional approach the county has taken which avoids competitive disadvantages between retailers and creates consistency for consumers,” he wrote.

Opponents of the ban, including representatives of plastics manufacturers, argue that the environmental damage has been exaggerated and that the proposed ordinance is an example of big government intruding on individual freedom.

They add that it will create inconvenience for shoppers.

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, headquartered in San Francisco, has filed a notice of “intent to litigate” should the ordinance pass. The coalition argues that paper bags and reusable bags “are worse for the environment than plastic bags based on several factors, including but not limited to greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution.”

The vote could be close. In November the board voted 7-5 to move the ordinance forward to this January hearing.

if you go

The public hearing begins at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the county government building, 1055 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo.