City offers shoppers a gift in advance of plastic bag ban

City offers shoppers a gift in advance of plastic bag ban

Michele Ellson

Plastic bags catch the wind at the Altamont Landfill. Photo by Rebecca Jewell.

City workers are offering Alameda’s environmentally conscious shoppers a gift at this year’s annual Hometown Holiday Celebration: A free, reusable shopping bag, in exchange for single-use plastic bags collected from the grocery and other stores.

The bag exchange was set up to promote awareness of new, countywide rules going into effect on January 1 that will prohibit grocery stores from offering plastic bags to their customers.

The Alameda County Waste Management Authority voted in January to put the ban in place to curtail the use of the bags, and cities voted individually to sign on in the months that followed. Alameda County’s new rules will bar grocery, liquor and convenience stores and others that sell packaged food from offering plastic bags, and will require them to charge a minimum of 10 cents each for paper bags. Businesses that flout the rules will face fines of up to $500 for a first violation.

The authority had originally considered a more robust ban that would have covered department stores and other retail establishments, but ultimately opted for the more modest ban, which will affect 65 stores in Alameda and 1,900 countywide.

“The adopted ordinance covers the stores that traditionally distribute a high volume of single-use bags. Starting with these stores allows for a program that can be fully funded within our current budget and gives us a chance to gauge the effectiveness of the ordinance,” authority spokesman Jeff Becerra said, adding that more stores could be included in the future.

The bags first came into use in the mid-1960s and were embraced by supermarkets nearly two decades later, ultimately becoming what some have called the most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth with as many as a trillion bags being used each year. But the cost and difficulty of properly disposing of the bags and their impact on waterways and marine life have led countries around the world to seek out ways to restrict their use.

Similar bans have already gone into effect in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles and in Marin and Santa Clara counties, over the protests of plastic bag manufacturers and others who have said the bans increase the use of paper bags. Efforts to enact a statewide ban, championed by Heal the Bay, have so far been unsuccessful.

Alameda County residents receive nearly 764 million of the estimated 19 billion single-use plastic bags handed out by California businesses each year, with more than 37 million of those distributed here on the Island, a draft environmental impact report for the bag ban and separate mandatory recycling rules says. That’s about 500 bags per Alameda resident each year.

A 2008 study showed that about 9,775 tons of plastic bags end up at Alameda County’s landfills each year, comprising 0.8 percent of the waste stream. That same year, a separate workgroup that included Alameda, Oakland, Fremont, Dublin and Alameda County found that plastic made up 68 percent of the trash in the creeks and shorelines they studied, with plastic bags accounting for 7 percent of the plastic litter.

Cities in Alameda County spend about $24 million a year to clear litter out of the storm drains, the authority’s environmental impact report says, and it lists plastic bags as a top item retrieved during other cleanup efforts. From the storm drains, the bags can end up in San Francisco Bay and may then drift out into the ocean.

As part of the terms of a federal permit aimed at reducing pollutants in the nation’s waters, the city must conduct an annual cleaning of four shoreline “hot spots.” The crews that conducted the 2010 and 2011 cleanups, which covered 1,040 yards of shoreline, retrieved more than 100 cubic yards of trash at a cost of $42,069, according to a city presentation on the cleanup efforts.

“When we clean up these hot spots, plastic bags are one of the dominant types of trash we find on every location,” said Patrizia Guccione, a program specialist in the city’s public works department.

Guccione said that the shore areas Alameda cleans up once a year are freshly littered as soon as a new tide comes in.

“You could literally have a cleanup every day and you would still find stuff,” she said.

The sun can break the petroleum-based bags down into smaller pieces, but those can remain in landfills and elsewhere for hundreds of years. Built like parachutes and weighing in at just five grams apiece, the bags pose a challenge for landfill operators and recyclers alike.

Rebecca Jewell described Waste Management’s Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro as a “massive watchworks” that can sort recyclables by size and weight. But plastic bags sent to the recycling center can bring its intricate machines to a halt, forcing workers to grind off the pieces.

“The plastic bags wrap around them, so the facility can’t distinguish any longer between a cardboard box and a tuna fish can,” said Jewell, the recycling program manager at Davis Street. She said the bags are the largest contaminant at recycling facilities and that the company encourages people to return the bags to the grocery store.

Wind is another problem for the transfer station and for operators of landfills like the one at Altamont, an area that’s also home to a wind farm.

“They also have to work really hard to capture the bags, before they land in Tracy,” Jewell said.

Plastic bag bans in other countries have reduced their use by as much as 90 percent, the environmental report on the bag ban said, and the authority had hoped that a broad-based ban could reduce their use in Alameda County by as much as 95 percent. They’ll be working through the end of the year to spread the word about the new rules – including through the holiday season.

“If people are thinking of buying holiday gifts, a possibility is a reusable bag,” Becerra said.

The bag exchange will take place from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, December 1 in the parking lot behind City Hall, at the corner of Oak Street and Santa Clara Avenue.