Richmond joins regional approach to ban plastic bags

A plastic bag lies on the pavement in Richmond's Civic Center Plaza. (Photo by Evelyn Xiaoqing Pi)

A plastic bag lies on the pavement in Richmond's Civic Center Plaza. (Photo by Evelyn Xiaoqing Pi)

Free single-use plastic bags are likely to disappear in Richmond retail stores next fall after the City Council decided Tuesday night to join a regional approach to ban the bags.

The council passed a unanimous resolution to collaborate with the West Contra Costa Integrated Waste Management Authority to develop a single-use bag ordinance and to conduct an environmental review. Richmond Environmental Initiatives, a division of the City Manager’s office that has studied the issue, recommends a ban on plastic bags, and a minimum 5-cent fee for each paper bag in all retail establishments.

“We’re recommending a fee of 5 cents per bag to discourage customers from using paper bags,” said Jennifer Ly, a sustainability associate with Environmental Initiatives, adding that fees in other cities range from 5-25 cents. “The department will also distribute reusable bags in targeted residential areas.”

The city has been interested in banning bags for years, but has proceeded slowly while watching the fate of similar ordinances. After a statewide ban failed last year, Richmond considered its own ban, but after a study estimated it would cost $57,940 to develop a city-wide stand-alone ordinance, city leaders decided to cooperate with WCCIWMA, a joint agency of five neighboring cities created to reduce waste going into landfill.

After a California Supreme Court decision, the WCCIWMA and city also can pursue a cheaper environmental review called a mitigated negative declaration, instead of a more costly and time-intensive environmental impact report. A group representing businesses and plastic manufacturers had challenged several cities’ bag-ban ordinances based on the cities not conducting EIRs, but the court ruled in July that a mitigated negative declaration was sufficient.

Chris Lehon, executive director of the WCCIWMA, said the cost to develop a mitigated negative declaration would be significantly less, and one can be done in six months rather than the 12 months an EIR often takes.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Richmond decided to encourage the city of El Cerrito, also member of the WWCIWMA, to support the joint power at its September 19 council meeting.

As the largest city among the five members of WCCIWMA, three Richmond City Council members sit on the board, while each other city has only one. But Richmond is not the first to support the authority on a bag ban — San Pablo joined the regional approach last November, and Hercules passed a similar resolution three weeks ago. The neighborhood city cooperation failed in Pinole in August.

The WWCIWMA plans to have its environmental review finished by August, and an ordinance ready by the fall of 2012.

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