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Retail plastic bag ban discussed at community meeting

on February 18, 2011

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.


  1. Michael on February 19, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I was afraid this might happen. In striving to present a “balanced” report, well-meaning reporter Woolridge has “over-reached” herself. An informal vote was taken by Ms. Ly, and of the attendees, twelve were in favor of banning the plastic, and only three were opposed. Neglecting to mention this fact and giving those three equal picas suggests that there was an even split which there wasn’t. I also think it’s more than ingenuous for Tom Waller to mislead a reporter by claiming to be a resident. That he may be, but he is also on the board of the Chamber of Commerce and famously appears at many City Council meetings to champion the raw ideological willfulness and the reactionary positions of that Chevron-stoked body. I find it sad that Tom and his gang can never see the way forward to an economy based on the needs of the future. Had he been around in the 1800’s, he would have lamented the passing of the horse and derided the train, in the 1950’s he might have defended the train and criticized jet travel. Chambers in general, local, state and national, always seems to eulogize the current economic power structure, and never seem to grasp and support the unfolding economy of the future. However, Capitalism will survive even their misguided efforts, and entrepreneurs with clearer vision are on track to provide us, at a little profit of course, with a more sustainable future. And Shilanda, the name is Beer, not Beers.

    • Robert Rogers on February 20, 2011 at 10:48 pm

      Mr. Beer,

      Thank you for your valuable insight. We have amended the article to correct the spelling of your name.

      Thank you again for reading and responding.


  2. Don Gosney on February 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    It’s too bad that this issue has become as politicized as virtually every other issue in Richmond seems to have become lately. The argument should be about finding workable alternatives to paper and plastic bags and not about who the arguments one side or the other are coming from.

    Shouldn’t the issue be how to convince people that using reusable bags is a better approach than plastic bags?

    If so, then why should it matter who a resident or business person works for and whether their voice should be diminished or silenced because they do not belong to the Richmond Progressive Alliance or because they belong to organizations that do not think along the same lines as the RPA? And where is the nexus between the Chevron refinery and a resident’s views on banning the use of plastic bags? Not everything stems from Chevron and no matter what Mr. Beer’s views on Chevron might be, not everything has to do with Chevron.

    If the RPA (excuse me–I meant to say the City Council) wants to do something about plastic bags, one area they might want to look at is working with our recycling firms so they will accept these bags for recycling. This way we don’t have to haul our bags to a specific site for recycling–they can be deposited in our curbside recycling bins. The same goes for the #4 plastic bags used by Target and used to cover our daily newspapers [Our local recycler won’t even accept #4 plastic. I collect mine and take it to Concord when I’m out that way.]

    I’ve been using cloth or similar bags for more than 30 years but I don’t always have them with me and still end up with way more plastic bags than I want. I even go without bags when I can but that’s difficult when the store employees insist on putting things into bags, packing the bags lightly (meaning they’re using way more bags than necessary) and double bagging when there’s no need. Part of the solution is to convince store owners/operators of how they can reduce the use of plastic bags. Even something like the way Costco offers their customers the use of the easily recyclable cardboard boxes they would otherwise have to crush and ship offsite.

    Unless the RPA wants to be punitive in what they will require businesses to charge for the use of a plastic bag, people are just going to pay it and gripe and pretty soon they’ll stop griping altogether—at least about this new tax. Let’s not forget that in most grocery stores they actually pay the customers to use their own bags but we’re not seeing any serious dent in the use of plastic and/or paper bags. If Mr. Beer uses his cloth bag every day, then my guess is that he’s making a healthy profit off of using it instead of accepting bags from the stores.

    Of course, even though these reusable bags aren’t that expensive and can pay for themselves in short order, it’s the people without money that will end up paying for most of these plastic bags. Isn’t this the kind of regressive tax that would normally boil the blood of our progressives?

    Something that concerns me is that anyone might confuse the views of the people at this meeting with the views of the public at large. It sounds like there were but 15 or so people at the meeting and from the photos that accompanied the article I’m seeing something of the makeup of that group (which begs to question why bother to even have a meeting if things have been decided beforehand?).

    Why take a straw poll amongst people who came in with their minds made up as if they were the voice of Richmond?

    I’ll admit that I did not attend this meeting but were there any discussions about the cost of paper bags versus plastic (from manufacture to disposal)? There are plenty of arguments pro and con for paper versus plastic but reusable cloth bags beats both of them.

    Personally, I would love to see us be rid of these plastic bags and even paper bags. And while we’re at it, let’s jump all over Costco for the excessive plastic packaging they require that ends up killing our landfills.

    What concerns me, though, is the process. Controlled and set up meetings like this and government edicts gravely concern me.

    If we’re serious about this, then we need to have a series of workshops and we need to reach out to the businesses that will be affected by this ban.

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