San Diego City Council committee passes plastic bag ban at retail stores

Proposal goes to review

SAN DIEGO - A proposed ban that would keep most retail outlets from using plastic bags to pack customer purchases was passed unanimously Wednesday by the City Council's Rules and Economic Development Committee.

The next steps are an environmental review and a tweaking of the language of the proposed law by the City Attorney's Office, so it might not reach the full City Council for adoption for nine months to one year from now, according to staff.

Eliminating the wispy thin bags is a major priority for environmentalists, who contend they scatter across beaches and get into the ocean, where they harm marine life. Also, 95 percent end up in landfills, taking up valuable space.

The ordinance would ban plastic bags at most stores, mandate a 10 cent per bag charge for customers who ask for paper bags, and require shopkeepers to maintain records for three years.

Plastic bags could still be used for meat, produce and prescription medications. Also, the restrictions would not apply to charities, large non-food retailers like Home Depot and customers who participate in government food programs.

"I think everyone here agrees that we should reduce waste, litter and pollution for the sake of our own environment, as well as our quality of life," committee member Mark Kersey said. "This is San Diego, we all love the outdoors. We want clean beaches and bays."

Kersey said he was troubled, however, by a piecemeal approach in which San Diego residents could just as easily shop at stores in suburban cities that don't have such a ban. The policy issue would be best handled by the state, but such bills have been repeatedly voted down in the Legislature in recent years, he said.

The councilman added that he was concerned by the inequity of exempting huge hardware stores while smaller establishments get stuck with the regulatory burden. Staff with the city's Department of Environmental Services said the exemptions included in the proposed ordinance generally match what has been adopted by 85 other cities around California.

"There's a lot of inconsistencies I don't understand" in the proposed ordinance, Kersey said.

Committee Chairwoman Sherri Lightner said she wants to see the ban adopted and reviewed one or two years later, after which the largest retailers could be made to comply.

She said "simply hoping" that more people will return plastic bags to retailers for recycling is no longer good enough.

"Our canyons, waterways, storm drain systems, streets and landfills deserve better," Lightner said.

On Tuesday, the Encinitas-based Equinox Center released a report which concludes the proposed ordinance would reduce the number of bags used in the city of San Diego by 70 percent.

The center found that 500 million of the bags are used in San Diego annually, and 350 million fewer would be used if the proposed ordinance was adopted.

The executive director of the center, Lani Lutar, supports a bag ban.

The Equinox Center report found that neither retailers nor consumers suffered significant economic damage in the jurisdictions around the state where bans are in effect.

Some costs went up for stores as customers opted for paper bags, but the center suggested most patrons will make the transition to reusable bags. Customers shelled out $7.70 to buy reusable bags in cities where a ban went
into effect, but those costs should go away because they can be used for years, according to the report.

Shopper Vendric Barnes said, "If you have a bag at home, you might as well bring that; save plastic bags."

Shopper Larry Harris told 10News, "That sucks. I think I'll take the free ones. I can't afford to buy them."

According to a 10News/U-T San Diego poll released in September, results show many people are not in favor of a ban.

When asked, "Should the city or town you live in allow stores to continue using plastic bags or ban the use of plastic bags," the results were overwhelmingly in favor of allowing them -- 54 percent to 30 percent, with 9 percent not sure.

10News brought this to San Diego City Councilmember Sherri Lightner, who believes there's some confusion. She said some think the ban includes produce bags even though it doesn't.

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