San Francisco Chronicle
Berkeley takes a look at banning plastic bags
Berkeley is studying how to ban non-compostable plastic bags from grocery stores, restaurants and city-sponsored events.
Council Member Kate Harrison introduced legislation that directs the city’s Zero Waste and Energy Commission to hold hearings with businesses about the potential impact of removing plastic bags, including produce bags in grocery stores. The City Council is expected to pass Harrison’s legislation Tuesday.
In 2016, California instituted a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and required businesses to enforce a minimum 10-cent charge on reusable plastic and paper bags. Harrison said the need to take that action a step further is critical.
Harrison’s legislation would prevent most businesses, farmers’ markets, street fairs and other city events from giving out reusable plastic grocery and takeout bags.
Harrison said Monday that the goal is to urge people to bring their own bags or use paper.
Berkeley has often been at the forefront of environmental legislation. In 2019, Berkeley became the first city in the nation to ban the installation of natural gas lines in new homes. That same year, Berkeley also banned single-use disposables, requiring restaurants to use compostable to-go foodware.
The California Restaurant Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We have seen the impact on our waterways of plastic bags,” Harrison said. “They are bad for the environment and they are bad for flooding. The other reason is COVID. Look at the amount of things people have to throw out now because of deliveries at home.”
Environmental advocates agree. Igor Tregub, chair of the Sierra Club’s Northern Alameda County Group, which includes Berkeley, said his organization will study Berkeley’s proposal as the city gets further along in its process.
“This looks very promising to me,” Tregub said. “This would be a first in the nation effort. Clearly, the status quo is not working. We still have nearly as many plastic bags being used once in the ecosystem as we did before, which is incredibly damaging to the planet. This has the opportunity to address that.”
San Francisco enacted a single-use plastic bag ban in 2007 and amended it in 2012 to allow charging for paper bags, said Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
“There was a learning curve back when we started, but we are a long way from then,” Thomas said in a statement. “The GGRA is supportive of smart, environmentally friendly moves like this. Yes, there is an additional cost, but the type of ordinance SF adopted years ago makes sense for our environment and has been said to reduce plastic bag usage significantly.”
Nate Rose, a spokesman for the California Grocers Association, said his group is open to discussing how “the grocery community can improve upon its environmental footprint, including store items like pre-checkout bags.”
“It will be important to ensure food and grocery items remain safe and that additional waste is prevented as protecting items from damage and contamination is vitally important to store operations,” he said.
Harrison said the legislation has already changed since it was first introduced in the summer. After receiving feedback from the community, the legislation, if passed, will still allow plastic bags for packaging meat, seafood and soup from grocery stores.
“This is how you do responsible legislation,” Harrison said. “You get people’s input.”
There is no set timeline yet on when the ban on plastic bags would go into effect.
Studies have shown that plastic bag bans are generally successful but had some unintended consequences. A 2019 study by an economist from the University in Sydney showed that plastic bag bans resulted in people using fewer plastic bags. But people who reused their shopping bags for other purposes still needed bags and instead, used plastic garbage bags.
Harrison said no legislation can entirely solve a problem.
“Our goal in government is to do good, not perfect,” she said.
The Berkeley City Council could eventually vote on the ban, but the timeline is not yet clear.