Approval in April could mean countywide implementation by summer
By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County shoppers take note: the next few months are likely the last to get plastic bags in grocery store checkout lines and at other retail shops.
A proposal to ban carryout plastic bags at those outlets and to levy a 10-cent fee on paper bags has reached the final set of government steps before officials weigh its approval this spring.
A draft environmental report is due out this week. After reviewing that report and accepting public comment, waste management officials could approve the study in April and adopt the countywide ordinance thereafter. A ban could be implemented this summer.
By that time, the regulation, now enacted in dozens of California cities and many counties, will be five years in the making for Sonoma County.
“This is an issue whose time has come,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, who has promoted the proposal. “We are finally moving forward and taking action to ban plastic bags.”
The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency would adopt the ordinance and enforce the ban.
The regulation is meant to shift consumers to reusable bags to reduce litter and address other environmental impacts. An estimated 300 million plastic and paper bags are used in Sonoma County every year.
The ordinance would cover local cities and the unincorporated county. It would affect a wide range of outlets, including grocery, clothing, hardware and drug stores, electronics vendors, convenience and liquor stores.
It would not extend to bags used to hold meat, vegetables or prescriptions, or apply to restaurants or stand-alone delicatessens, thrift stores or other nonprofit charitable operations. It would also not restrict the sale of plastic bags for trash and other uses.
The regulation would take on the established habits of shoppers who’ve favored plastic bags in checkout lines since the late 1970s.
Some said the switch, to paper bags for a fee or reusable totes, would be a hassle.
“I don’t see a problem with the bags if you re-use them,” said Becky Scrivanich of Santa Rosa as she loaded groceries into her car outside of Oliver’s market. “I have five cats so I need them for litter-box cleanup.”
Shoppers who already have switched to previously used bags or reusable totes said they either wouldn’t mind the new regulation or would welcome it.
“I think it makes sense,” said Nancy Allen, also of Santa Rosa, as she went through the checkout line at Oliver’s. “After all, we used to do without them.”
For years, opponents of plastic bags saw their work on bans in California turned back in Sacramento and in legal challenges by the plastic bag industry.
Recent regulations, including a model ordinance passed by the City of San Jose that targeted plastic and paper bags, have been more successful.
Sonoma County officials sought to craft a proposal along those lines. Recent changes would ease requirements for vendors in reporting paper bag sales over the first three years.
The current proposal would keep the customer fee for those sales at 10 cents a bag. Originally, it was set to go to 25 cents a bag in 2014, but waste management officials said the 10-cent fee — the most common statewide — is enough to provide incentive to prompt bag reuse while not being punitive.
Officials also have proposed making a vendor’s first violation of the ordinance a warning instead of a $100 fine. The $100 penalty would kick in on a second violation and would rise to $200 for a third violation in a year and $500 for a fourth violation.
“We don’t want to come out just with guns blazing,” said Patrick Carter, an administrative analyst with the waste management agency.
Enforcement would be triggered by complaints to the agency, which does not anticipate a need for additional staff as a result of the new duties. “We found that in other cities it’s just not been necessary,” Carter said.
The ordinance can be adopted only by a unanimous vote of the waste management agency’s 10-member board, which is made up of representatives of each of the nine cities and Sonoma County.
The outlines of the proposal and work on the environmental report were endorsed last year by the county Board of Supervisors and by the councils of seven cities. The review for Santa Rosa came in a council study session; for Rohnert Park, it came through a committee.
Before any final vote, waste management officials are likely to hold public presentations this spring with each of the cities and the county, Carter said.
The public will have 45 days to comment on the 230-page environmental report after its release this week. The waste management agency will also hold a public meeting Feb. 20 to discuss the report.
The study found no significant impacts resulting from the ordinance. Air and water quality and wildlife are expected to benefit from the regulation, Carter said.
The report cost the waste management agency about $41,000, or far less than the budgeted amount of $150,000, largely because of the growing number of jurisdictions now pursuing bag bans.
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or email@example.com.)