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Belmont City Council Considering Ban on Plastic Bags

The community, Green Advisory Committee and the City Council are working together on the issue.

Belmont could become the first city in San Mateo County to implement a ban on plastic bags after the City Council discussed the issue at its meeting Tuesday night.

The item was presented by Green Advisory Committee member and Belmont resident Michael Swire, who told the City Council at its meeting Tuesday night the city should work toward banning plastic bags.

Swire, who has been on the Green Advisory Committee for nearly two years, said Belmont can follow in the footsteps of San Jose, Palo Alto and San Francisco as other local communities that have banned the bags.

So far no other cities in San Mateo County have implemented a plastic bag ban.

The committee is suggesting the ban be imposed on all single-use plastic bags, that a fee be charged to retailers who provide single-use paper bags to customers and that all paper bags be made of 40 percent recycled content.

Council members were receptive to the idea, and suggested the issue be placed under the purview of the city attorney's office in order to explore its legality and how it could be implemented.

The plastic bag ban was addressed by council members as part of forming their annual priorities during their meeting.

Swire, who stood before council members with a gaggle of plastic bags in one hand and one reusable bag in the other, said the city and its retailers stand to save money should the ban be approved.

The savings to residents is shown through savings to retailers that would no longer purcase plastic bags, therefore passing that cost-savings along to consumers, said Swire.

The city will save money in garbage and recycling rates, because the city's garbage company cannot process the bags, and most residents who collect bags put them in their own trash rather than take them to the designated recycling bin at Safeway, he said.

Beyond the economic savings, the city can eliminate its contribution to the pollution issues caused by plastic bags that are not disposed of properly, said Swire.

He also said the city can cut down on the blight caused by loose bags, and that the ban would show the city's commitment to marine wildlife, which are threatened by bags that pollute the ocean.

The Green Advisory Committee advises the city's Community Development department on issues pertaining to the environment, and how to implement more green practices.

Swire said many members of the community support the ban. He presented online petitions with nearly 100 signatures, about 30 of which are Belmont residents, and a Facebook group also with about 30 members, both of which are dedicated to supporting the plastic bag ban.

He also provided council members with letters from environmental advocacy groups including Save The Bay, Clean Water Action, Plastic Pollution Coalition and a local chapter of the Sierra Club that support the ban as well.

"This is an opportunity for Belmont to take a huge step forward for the environment," said Swire.

The Green Advisory Committee has not discussed how the ban could be enforced, but other communities that have banned the bags haven't had difficulties with compliance, said Swire.

Mayor Coralin Feierbach suggested the city follow the groundwork laid by San Jose in implementing the ban, but also said the idea needs to be legally scrubbed by the city attorney's office.

Swire said he hoped the city could implement the ban sometime in the next year, but allow several months to phase it in through local businesses.

The ban could also stimulate business for reusable bag manufacturers, some of which are based in the Bay Area,  Swire said.

Swire said he would hope other local communities, including San Carlos, Redwood City and San Mateo, would eventually consider a similar ban as well.

Anonymous February 10, 2011 at 06:37 PM
Did no one on the Belmont City Council express any sort of skepticism over the arguments presented by Mr. Swire? Most dubious is that consumers will save money from a ban on plastic bags. False. First, a corporation such as Safeway will not stop buying plastic bags simply because a handful of cities implement a ban. These costs will still be incurred and passed along to consumers in Belmont. The only difference will be that Belmont consumers no longer will have the benefit of using the bags. Second, even if fewer bags were purchased, there is no indication that companies purchasing the bags would actually pass through the savings to consumers. Third, even if the savings were passed along to consumers, how much are we talking about? The cost of a plastic bag is probably on the order of a few pennies per bag. The savings will not be significant. I am even more skeptical because the proposal is to charge retailers a fee for every single-use bag, presumably no matter what material it is made out of. That will increase costs to consumers, not reduce them. The goal is laudable but the means are dubious. The real problem seems to be that consumers do not avail themselves of the recycling methods available to them. Education would be a better solution. Moreover, I have to say that I am growing uncomfortable with the trend in Belmont to act as a nanny (e.g., the smoking ban). Give consumers options; educate them; individuals will make the right decision.
Dave Warden February 10, 2011 at 07:25 PM
I don't believe that the City Council had any substantive discussion on the issue. You make some very good points and you are obviously a very intelligent person, but I am disappointed that you choose to be anonymous. I value these public forums very much, but I also like to know to whom I am speaking. Nonetheless, I appreciate your comments. And Mike, I also commend you for bringing this idea forward for consideration.
Mike Swire February 10, 2011 at 09:43 PM
The City Council has not yet responded to the recommendations of the Green Advisory Committee so any critique at this point is unfair. I respectfully disagree with many of your statements: - Retailers, even national ones, often set their pricing at a local level depending on their cost structure. E.g., real estate costs are higher in San Francisco and thus supermarket prices are usually more expensive. Stores in Belmont compete for shoppers with those in San Carlos. If I were a retailer in Belmont and my cost structure improved, I would cut prices in order to steal share from stores in San Carlos. Or maybe I would make my store more attractive. - Helping local businesses reduce their cost structure also helps create local jobs. - The cost of "free" bags isn't insignificant. A County of Los Angeles study estimates that retailers spend $18-30 per shopper per year to provide "free" bags. Multiply that times thousands of shoppers and you are talking about a real improvement to the bottom line of our businesses. - The Belmont Green Advisory Committee's recommendation would be to develop a policy that mirrors other Bay Area cities (in order to reduce variability between cities). Similar to San Jose, this would include a ban on plastic bags and a $0.10 fee on paper bags (minimum 40% recycled). This provides an incentive for customers for customers to use reusable bags, which are often available for less than $1 each and could last for several years.
Anonymous February 10, 2011 at 10:33 PM
You made a proposal that presumably was reported accurately. A critique of that proposal is not "unfair," as you say. The example you use to support your first counter-argument is unpersuasive. Real estate costs are fixed and directly tied to the profitability of a single location; the costs of plastic bags are variable and can be diffused among many locations. Equating real estate costs to the costs of inputs is like equating apples and oranges. Also, what you would do as a retailer is interesting but irrelevant. Second, you offer no support for your claim that reducing cost structure will help create local jobs. A retailer's ability to charge somewhat less for its goods says nothing about the impact on demand for those goods, which would in turn drive hiring of new employees to help serve that demand. Demand depends a lot on elasticity, meaning a drop by a few pennies will not necessarily drive up demand if consumers are not overly sensitive to price. Third, I would have to know more about the L.A. County study you cite to assess its relevance. E.g., what kinds of bags were at issue? All plastic bags? Paper bags? The per-bag cost is more interesting, in any event. The less drastic proposal is to assess a deposit fee (same as with bottles and cans) that is refundable if you recycle the plastic bag. Banning plastic and increasing the cost of paper bags will simply drive Belmont consumers to cities that have not enacted such a draconian solution.
Anonymous February 10, 2011 at 11:37 PM
Mr. Reed, you are correct that the market will not always address environmental concerns adequately. However, the historical examples you cite do not really have any bearing on the merits of Mr. Swire's proposal. Let us focus on the problem at hand, which seems to be that individuals do not recycle plastic bags, even though they have the opportunity to do so. If that is the problem, we must ask: What is the least restrictive means that we can use to solve it? I suggest that a wholesale ban on plastic is an overly broad response that has the potential to negatively distort the market, i.e., driving consumers to other cities and thereby adversely affecting Belmont's sales tax revenue. Also, the irony of a switch back to paper bags will not escape all those old enough to remember why stores started using plastic in the first place, i.e., to be more environmentally friendly. Your suggestion about a Peninsula-wide ban is interesting. However, there is a not insignificant collective action problem there. There is also the legal issue of preemption, which I am sure the City Attorney will study in depth.
Marianne Bush February 11, 2011 at 12:33 AM
Whoa, this really got people fired up. What on earth is wrong with bringing your own bags to the store? We always carry a good supply in the trunk so they're handy in case of a sudden urge to shop. I guess change can be difficult to handle for some people.
Mike Swire February 11, 2011 at 01:05 AM
I know that Lunardi's offers a 5c discount per bag brought in. I am not aware of any other store in Belmont that does so. Despite this incentive, checkers have told me that less than 20% of customers bring their own bags.
Mike Swire February 11, 2011 at 01:27 AM
Yes, Eric, a county-wide ban would be great. I doubt many, if any, customers will instead choose non-Belmont stores. To get from Carlmont to the Lucky in San Carlos is 7.4 miles round trip and at least 20 minutes in traffic. That will cost you $1.50 in driving costs (assuming a marginal cost per mile of $0.20). All to avoid $0.40 in cost for paper bags? Besides, if you bring back the bag next time there is no cost.
Iain February 11, 2011 at 06:56 AM
We should be using biodegradable plastic. Significantly smaller environmental footprint than paper, even recycled. They are available as the thin bags, I have some I picked up out of state last week. Hmm, states other than CA have better green cultures. Say it ain't so. Landfills aren't all bad. The methane they produce is being tapped for fuel. The anti-'plastic' backlash isn't well thought out.
Mike Swire February 11, 2011 at 03:25 PM
Hi Iain, The City of Los Angeles examined biodegradable bags as a solution. They concluded that biodegradable bags are inferior to reusable bags for a variety of reasons: - they still contribute to suburban blight as they are lightweight. - they still wind up in the marine environment and thus are ingested by turtles and other wildlife. - they still increase recycling costs if they are disposed with curbside recycling (jamming machinery and contaminating recyclable plastic) - they cost 3x as much as non-biodegradable plastic bags. That's $90 per year in cost per shopper - they produce 3x as many greenhouse gases over their lifecycle vs. reusable bags Here is a link to the LA study: http://ladpw.org/epd/pdf/PlasticBagReport.pdf . Mike
Elizabeth Gomez February 11, 2011 at 03:45 PM
I am surprised at how upset people are gettingboer this. I agree with Ms. Bush, I " invested " ( it wasn't much at all) in a set of reusable bags a few years ago. I keep them in the trunk of my car and use them for all my shopping. It's a small change. I am extremely annoyed by people that can not be bothered to make even a small change for the greater good. It's all those small steps that eventually make a difference. Stop whining, and arguing just to argue an be willing to make little changes. No one is asking you to walk to work or grow your own food, IT'S A BAG! I hope they push this through county wide. Elizabeth Gomez
Iain February 11, 2011 at 04:30 PM
Hi, Mike, i would suggest that he LA report is very good, but seriously out of date, the economics have changed considerably. Gas and oil prices have changed, bioeconomics have improved considerably, there is now serious capacity worldwide...Many or also supposedly animal digestible. I haven't tried one myself. Elizabeth, I have no trunk in my car, what's my solution? I forget my bags. What should stores stock? The question is perhaps what is the next best provision.
Gladwyn d'Souza February 11, 2011 at 05:15 PM
On landfills and methane please see, and title says it all Putting the landfill energy myth to rest, may 2010, BioCycle. Complementary pdf here http://www.jgpress.com/archives/2010_05.html In the section Waste of Resources. subtitle Time to Move On. By Sally Brown University of Washington in Seattle. quote: you can't separate the argument of landfill efficiences from a real discussion on how we need to manage our resources. This means not throwing them away. And landfills are for throwingn things away.
Gladwyn d'Souza February 11, 2011 at 05:52 PM
Biodegradeable in the landfill... Ok thats the reality because the new garbage contractor wont take it in the green bin because they degrade at a higher tempature than other compostables. More here http://www.jgpress.com/BCArticles/2002/030260.html Quote: The unease surrounding degradable plastics is not new. More than ten years ago, bags made from a blend of starch and polyethylene were introduced into the market. The problem was that while these bags broke apart in a composting environment, they did not mineralize (i.e. were not completely converted to carbon dioxide and water), leaving fragments of plastic in the compost. Last year Starbucks convened a panel to address this issue with a goal of a uniform standard and a final product that could end up in a home compost. Until then its been many variations, with some big dollars from Du Pont and ADM, on wishful thinking.
Iain February 12, 2011 at 12:08 AM
The debate about tiny amounts of plastic residue from plastic bags is entertaining. All the remaining plastic from a households annual biodegradable plastic bag use would fill less than 1/8th of one weeks trash. We are putting way more non degradable material in, it's not a practically measurable problem. Also, this debate isn't about home composting, but that would be a laudable goal. Question today is what is the best available tool for getting your groceries home. No-one would disagree that we shoulld stop throwing things away. That's not a practical debate.
k February 12, 2011 at 03:03 AM
I find it hard to believe that anybody would drive to another city to save some pennies on plastic bags. The manager at Bianchini's in San Carlos once told me that plastic bags cost 1cent per bag, the paper bags cost 10cents per bag. Now those numbers may have changed, but that's what I was told about a year ago. No wonder that at Safeway the checker would literally put 3 items in a plastic bag... before I switched to my own bags, I could walk out with 20 plastic bags at a time. The same amount of stuff fits in 3-4 cloth bags. Safeway used to give a 3cent discount for every bag you brought, Whole Foods gave you a 5cent token for each bag and you could pick a charity to give your token to. Trader Joes in San Carlos (sometimes) gives you a raffle ticket for each bag, and one person wins $25 gift card each week. Plastic bags should be banned - they are so incredibly wasteful and horrible for the environment. I suggest that plastic bags be banned county wide. Each paper bag would cost the consumer 10cents. I think once people had to pay an extra 40 cents, they would rapidly start to bring their own bags. Or maybe they'd decide that 40 cents isn't worth stressing over, given the total food bill! It's the consumer's choice but they have to bear the consequences of the choice. Other than that, I can't think of a way to change consumer behavior without either creating logistics problems or incentives for both retailers and customers to cheat.
k February 12, 2011 at 03:07 AM
Iain, stores should stock paper bags and they should charge you for the bag. Your choice. What car doesn't have a trunk? Maybe you could put them on the floor? I mean, I can bring bags with me on my bicycle, so I'm pretty sure you could find room in your car if you wanted to. By the way, IIRC, the IKEA in Palo Alto doesn't give out bags. You bring your own or buy one of theirs.
Laura Dudnick (Editor) February 14, 2011 at 06:32 PM
Good morning! In case anyone missed it, this morning KTVU reported the Daly City City Council will consider a plastic bag ban at their meeting tonight, similar to the one Belmont is considering.
Keeper Ansley February 15, 2011 at 02:58 AM
When it comes to litter on the beach it is misleading to believe that plastic bags are the most common beach litter. The percentage of plastic bags being littered has been lowered, too. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2007 International Costal Cleanup Report notes that among litter 8% of the items picked up were plastic bags. Bags even trailed cigarette related items at 27.2%, food wrappers at 9.6%, and caps and lids at 9.1%. This illustrates that act of littering is a problem and not the item itself. Of the 3,899,528 pounds or 7,238,201items of litter cleaned up in 2007 only 8817 pound or 587,827 bags were collected. That is only 0.002% by weight. (Note* 66.6 bags equal one pound). - Ocean Conservancy’s 2007 International Costal Cleanup Report
Gladwyn d'Souza February 15, 2011 at 05:49 AM
The quantity of marine debris is increasing in oceans world-wide. Researchers at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation documented an increase in plastic debris in the Central Pacific Gyre five-fold between 1997 and 2007, where the baseline in 1997 showed plastic pieces outnumbered plankton on the ocean surface 6:1 http://www.cleanwateraction.org/feature/problem-of-marine-plastic-pollution Plastic bags photodegrade which means they over time break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers which eventually contaminate soils and waterways. As a consequence their microscopic particles can enter the food chain. http://articles.cnn.com/2007-11-14/tech/fsummit.climate.plasticbags_1_plastic-bags-alexander-parkes-outright-ban?_s=PM:TECH Of which you are at the top. Bon Appetit.
Marianne Bush February 15, 2011 at 06:47 AM
This is a no-brainer. I find it very difficult to understand why anybody would defend the use of plastic bags where substitutes are so readily available. Thankfully, the whole discussion here has shown that most people care.
Iain February 16, 2011 at 04:55 AM
The weight of reports, blog articles etc indicate that this is actually a very big brainer. In order to ban plastic bags we ought to be showing that the alternatives are environmentally better. That, no matter what everyone's beliefs are, is actually difficult. Paper has a tremendous environmental footprint and charging for the product doesn't actually remedy that situation. Plastic bags aren't as harmful to the landfills as much of the other trash - ever thrown out one, non-recyclable plastic food container? Probably harmed a landfill more than many, many plastic bags. If we ban plastic bags from stores how does one show that we, in Belmont, have improved the World's environmental footprint. Actually we are lucky that Mike Swire and others have committed much time and energy to trying to get to the bottom of a very, very interesting problem!
Left Belmont February 18, 2011 at 11:44 PM
Used to live in a house backing the creek. Never saw a plastic bag there in 5 years. Doesn't seem like a significant problem for suburban areas. Seems to me like a pro-environment lie told by the paper manufacturing companies. Just like so many seemingly good things (like the Toyota Prius) they are all Green Marketing and no green reality. By suspicious of all eco-friendly regulations.
Shawn May 26, 2011 at 02:53 AM
Plastic bags are a privilege to use, not a right too. You may not knowingly know it but we have all abused this privilege and something needs to be done about it!
Project GreenBag May 26, 2011 at 04:49 AM
Project GreenBag is the sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags. 100% organic cotton, biodegradable, affordable, and made in San Francisco California. http://www.ProjectGreenBag.com http://www.facebook.com/ProjectGreenBag http://twitter.com/projectgreenbag
Cliff Greenberg May 26, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Late to this discussion, but I just returned from Kauai: last year about this time they banned plastic bags at checkout. I actually would fly with a few reusable bags when I visited the island, and this year I noticed that "most" of the supermarket customers were bringing their own bags. I didn't do a count so I can't claim to have a specific datum, but I'm guessing over 90%. I still, occasionally, get paper bags here to use as trash liners, but paper does degrade and if it were loose, it would not fly around like the plastic bags I still see on roadsides. It appeared to be a relatively simple change-over, the biggest impact was actually on the farmers markets: Kauai has over a dozen a week. This month, at the markets I attended, I did count, and saw 100% of the customers carrying their own bags. Not a bad percentage!
Project GreenBag June 01, 2011 at 06:15 AM
I went to Belmont, CA today to support a ban on plastic bags! City council members were VERY accepting and all agreed plastic bags must go. The ban is sure to pass! http://www.facebook.com/ProjectGreenBag
Project GreenBag June 01, 2011 at 06:15 AM
Project GreenBag is the sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags. 100% organic cotton, biodegradable, affordable, and made in San Francisco California. http://www.ProjectGreenBag.com http://www.facebook.com/ProjectGreenBag http://twitter.com/projectgreenbag
Steve Hayes June 01, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Trader Joes has nicer looking reusable bags and I already have six of those. If Belmont does pass an outright ban I will simply take my resusable bags and head south to grocery shop - generally cheaper, more variety and avoid the Belmont Nanny State. San Carlos Trader Joes Farmer's Market - better than the one in Belmont - thurs nights Redwood City Whole Foods Safeway - a bigger/better store than the two here Grocery Outlet - very good prices Sigonas - great produce variety El Merdadito - low produce prices and fantastic variety of Mexican food La Biscotteria - left Belmont to find a more friendly business environment Costco Smart and Final BevMo -
Gail February 28, 2012 at 10:10 AM
NO on banning plastic bags!!...This is a serious PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE because of "cross contamination" of foods due to use of 'unsanitary' reusable bags that have been improperly stored in 'unclean' areas and never washed......think e-coli, norovirus et al. which could be fatal especially to infants, immuno-suppressed individuals and the elderly. Better solution is for involved industries to develop a biodegradable disposable bag...can't be that difficult!! Issue to ban should be thoroughtly investigated and decided upon by public health officials and include reviewing results of mandatory routine swabbing of bags and conveyer belts for bacteria and viruses which should be done by food markets and public health infection control departments.

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