Berkeley City Council to consider moving forward with plastic bag ban

Berkeley City Council is considering banning plastic bags in the city of Berkeley.
Kevin Foote/Staff
Berkeley City Council is considering banning plastic bags in the city of Berkeley.

Single-use plastic bags might as well be an endangered species in Alameda County.

Berkeley City Council is set to consider an item at its Tuesday meeting that would “initiate a public process to inform residents and businesses” that the council is seriously considering adopting a ban on single-use plastic bags.

A complete ban could be imposed in Berkeley as soon as January 2013 as part of a larger countywide effort already underway.

“I wanted to spread the word to the public now so that when the actual decision happens, people don’t say, ‘Well, nobody told me anything about this — how can you do this behind our backs?’” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who authored the item. “I wanted to make sure that the word gets out now.”

Alameda County’s Waste Management Authority will hold a public hearing Nov. 16 on an ordinance that, in its current draft form, would prohibit stores from providing single-use plastic bags to customers while concurrently placing a 10-cent minimum charge on recycled paper bags and reusable bags.

However, the ban may not affect everyone. If a particular city wishes to opt out of the ordinance, it may do so through a resolution of its governing body before March 2, 2012, according to the draft.

Additionally, according to the draft ordinance, the ban would not apply to single-use carry-out bags or reusable bags given to customers by food providers for takeout foods and drinks.

Earlier this year, Berkeley City Council delayed action on a plastic bag ban, choosing instead to wait for a countywide Environmental Impact Report and therefore avoid a lawsuit like one levied against the city of Manhattan Beach — a suit that sprung from an attempt to enact a similar ban on plastic bags. However, in July, the California Supreme Court ruled that Manhattan Beach did not have to conduct an EIR in order to impose its ordinance.

The public hearing next week will also cover the ordinance’s draft EIR, which found no significant impacts related to regulation of single-use bags, according to Jeff Becerra, communications manager for StopWaste.org, a public agency that includes both the county’s Waste Management Authority and its Source Reduction and Recycling Board.

Alameda County uses about 764 million plastic bags and 104 million paper bags annually, according to the draft EIR. And though litter and hazards to marine life are routinely cited as reasons behind banning plastic bags, Stephen Joseph, counsel for the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition — which has submitted a host of objections to the draft EIR — questioned some of the statements often used to promote such a ban.

In particular, Joseph refuted claims regarding the size of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” — a mass of plastic and other trash in the ocean purported to be twice the size of Texas. Joseph pointed instead to Oregon State University assistant professor Angelicque “Angel” White’s research indicating that the size of the “patch” is significantly smaller.

“So the real issue is whether or not what’s being said about plastic bags is true,” Joseph said. “If you look at the reasons for banning plastic bags, the biggest environmental disaster is the destruction of environmental truth.”

At UC Berkeley, the campus chapter of CALPIRG is spearheading an effort for the ban. The group already had a goal of petitioning 9,000 signatures this semester in favor of a ban to present to City Council, but the ordinance’s potentially imminent implementation propelled the group into overdrive, according to Megan Majd, the group’s oceans coordinator.

As of Monday, Majd said the group had garnered about 3,540 signatures.

“Pretty much all of the students, except for a select few, are really kind of confused as to why Berkeley hasn’t done this yet,” Majd said.

J.D. Morris is the lead environment reporter.