The city of Richmond is considering an ordinance that will prohibit the distribution of plastic bags and allow retail establishments to charge customers a fee for paper bags.
The city’s Environmental Initiatives department, which is the agency facilitating the ordinance, held a community meeting Wednesday night to solicit feedback from residents and business owners. Thirteen attendees listened closely and munched on a complimentary dinner of assorted sandwiches and beverages, while Jennifer Ly, a Sustainability Associate with the city, gave a Power Point presentation accented with pictures of areas like the Richmond Greenway and 23rd Street that are littered with wayward plastic bags.
“Nineteen billion plastic bags a year are used in the state of California,” she said.
If the ordinance passes, stores will no longer be able to offer customers free plastic bags. So customers may either bring their own bags from home, or pay a small fee for paper bags. Merchants will keep the paper bag fees to help offset the cost of supplying the bags.
Richmond is not the first California city to attempt a ban on plastic bag use in retail establishments. The trend of discouraging single-use plastic bags started many years ago overseas in countries like Germany, South Africa, India, and Australia. San Francisco became the first California city to ban them in 2007. Many municipalities followed in its footsteps like Fairfax, Los Angeles, and Palo Alto. Others, like Berkeley, are currently working on bans.
The potential retail plastic bag ban may follow in the footsteps of last year’s polystyrene ban that prohibited styrofoam takeout food packaging in Richmond. Now all food-to-go must be packaged with biodegradable or compostable alternatives.
California state legislators attempted a retail plastic bag ban last year. Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, wrote AB 1988 to ban single-use plastic bags. The bill failed, which meant many cities like Richmond that were waiting to see the outcome, opted to take action on their own terms.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, the audience reactions to a potential plastic bag ban were mixed.
“I don’t know how I’d get along without plastic bags,” said Carolyn, a Richmond resident who declined to give her last name. “They have many uses, and there are some things that can’t be substituted for it.”
Resident Paul Miao was equally dubious. “Think of how we dispose of the bags and give people a choice,” he said.
Michael Beer, who said he absolutely supports the ordinance, suggested Richmond adopt a model he noted while vacationing in London. There, shoppers can choose to buy the kind of bags they want; a popular option is designer reusable cloth bags for 50 pence or $1. Beer, who shops every day, had his bag from London on hand.
Beer enthusiastically suggested creating reusable cloth bags designed to boost Richmond pride. “This could be a business opportunity for someone,” said Beer. “The bags could say ‘I love Richmond’ or have Rosie the Riveter on them.”
Nicole Valentino, who works for the mayor’s office as a community advocate, had personal reasons for supporting the ordinance. “I think the word ‘ban’ makes people nervous, but plastic bags are so detrimental to the environment,” she said. “It is very inconsiderate that our children’s children’s children will have to deal with our waste.”
To take a straw poll Ly passed out Post-It notes to the audience members so they could cast their votes on the two questions for the night: How much should each customer pay for a paper bag at the point of sale, and what is the appropriate period of compliance for the ordinance? The period of compliance is the length of grace period between adoption of the ordinance and when retail establishments will have to comply.
Most of the votes that were tallied for the paper bag fee hovered around the ten cent mark. There was a close vote between a six-month grace period and a six-month to one-year grace period.
When the meeting was over, many residents still had strong opinions. Many lingered to chat with Ly or each other. “It’s a huge litter issue,” said resident Robin Bedell-Waite. “It’s windy here and plastic bags are always flying around. It’s a problem for aquatic and wild life. We lived for a millennium without plastic bags. We can figure out how to do it again.”
Tom Waller, a resident, was concerned about the government mandating the personal choices of citizens. He felt a logical business approach was better than a green ideological angle. “This could have a dramatic impact on retail business,” he said. “First, let’s be clear on the problem we’re trying to solve. Then be clear on the solution. What are the pros and cons? I appreciate the outreach, but I think it’s an over-reach.”
The Environmental Initiatives department will next survey businesses, continue to do outreach to community groups, and present a study to the city council in March. The earliest an ordinance could be presented to the council for a vote would be in April.