By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County’s ban on single-use plastic bags goes into effect Friday, but shoppers may face a mixed bag of policies until enforcement begins Sept. 1.
Some retailers who publicly supported the ban, such as Oliver’s Markets, are embracing the ban and Friday will stop offering customers plastic bags and start charging them 10 cents per paper bag.
“We lobbied for this law we believe in it, so we’re going to move forward and comply with the law fully,” said Tom Scott, general manager of Oliver’s, which has two stores in Santa Rosa and one in Cotati.
Others like G&G Market are planning to work through their inventory of existing plastic bags and hold off charging shoppers for paper bags as long as possible.
“We’re trying to not to burden our customers with one more thing and will be pushing off that fee as long as we can,” said Teejay Lowe, CEO of G&G Supermarkets, which has stores in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
The 5-and-a-half-month grace period was designed to allow retailers time to expend their inventory of plastic bags.
But it also sends mixed messages to shoppers about when and how individual retailers will be responding to the ban, said Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood, chairman of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.
“I think it’s potentially confusing if people don’t know what to expect when they go into a store,” Wood said. “I wish it was cleaner.”
Ordinances become law 30 days after they are passed, so the new law passed by 10-member waste management agency board on Feb. 19 will officially go into effect Friday, said Patrick Carter, an agency analyst.
A later enforcement date was written into the ordinance because “one month’s notice isn’t a lot of time” for retailers to switch gears, Carter said.
The later enforcement date is really the most important one in the sense of a “ban” going into effect, Carter said.
“Nobody is going to come knocking on their door and saying ‘Why haven’t you switched?’ until Sept. 1,” Carter said.
Even then agency staff envisions enforcement will be complaint-based and largely unnecessary as retailers comply with the law voluntarily as they have in many other cities around the state, Carter said.
The agency board has always said, however, that it encouraged retailers who wanted to implement the ban immediately to do so, Carter said.
There wasn’t much question in the mind of Steve Schafer, manager of the Trader Joe’s on Santa Rosa Avenue, about when the company’s three Sonoma County locations would begin complying with the ordinance.
The stores don’t offer single-use plastic bags, only paper, and they already do a lot to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags, including large signs near the entrances and contest to encourage use of reusable bags, Schafer said.
“The transition for us isn’t going to be that great,” he said.
The real change beginning Friday will be the stores charging customers 10 cents per paper bag, he said. The charge will allow the store to offset its costs, but more importantly, it likely will create a powerful incentive for shoppers to bring their own bags. Trader Joe’s stores in communities where bans have taken place have seen the use of paper bags plunge, he said. That saves the company money that can be passed on to customers in the form of lower prices, he said.
Even so, Schafer said the staff is “a little bit nervous” about rolling out the changes ahead of other retailers. Checkers will have to inform customers about the new policy, and discuss with them how many bags they’ll need for their purchases, he said.
For Oliver’s Market, the ability to charge for paper bags was a “secondary consideration” in its decision to voluntarily follow the ban immediately, Scott said.
The primary reason is that the use of large numbers of single-use bags is “not consistent with our other business values,” Scott said. “To see these bags, hundreds of thousands of bags every year just going out and going into a landfill, it doesn’t feel good,” Scott said.
The grocer still has a small supply of single-use plastic bags, but instead of using them over time, Oliver’s will stop using them Friday, he said. The company likely will donate the leftover bags to a nonprofit that can use them, he said. Nonprofits, along with restaurants, are exempt from the ban.
How and when other large retailers begin complying with the law is unclear.
A Walmart official said the company is “undertaking the process to transition away from plastic bags” at its locations in Rohnert Park and Windsor, but provided no specifics.
A spokesman for the Safeway supermarket chain issued a similar statement, anticipating that “the change will go smoothly as employees versed on the new rules” but offering no details.
All stores said they would increase the amount of reusable bags.
Santa Rosa passed it’s own version of the bag ban on Feb. 11, so technically Santa Rosa’s ordinance went into effect earlier this week.
The waste management agency already has information about the ban on its website. It is planning to launch an outreach campaign to the public and retailers soon. The public education activities will include distributing 20,000 reusable bags to low income residents through social service organizations as well as at community events such as farmers markets and the county fairs.
Agency staff also is reaching out to retailers to educate them about the new law, explain what types of bags comply and to supply them with placards and posters to remind shoppers to bring their own bags. Three retailer “fairs” are planned for Cotati, Windsor and Santa Rosa at dates to be determined.
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)