Berkeley drew up a model ordinance about banning plastic bags in 2009, but nothing has happened since then. Photo: Creative Commons

Kriss Worthington is tired of waiting.

More than six years ago, the Berkeley councilmember suggested that the city ban the use of plastic grocery bags.

At the time, the idea was new and Worthington liked the notion of Berkeley leading the nation by passing an environmentally friendly law.

Since then, more than 100 cities, counties and countries have banned the use of plastic grocery bags. In 2007, San Francisco was the first city in the country to pass legislation outlawing the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and pharmacy chains.

Berkeley has done nothing.

“It’s an important environmental policy,” said Worthington. “To me, it’s sort of embarrassing that it was proposed in Berkeley before anywhere else. Now all these other places have policies. It’s time we get a policy.”

Berkeley’s inaction on banning plastic bags is not for lack of trying. It even has a model ordinance drawn up, written way back in 2009.

But city officials have been reluctant to pass a law until it was certain that plastic bag manufacturers wouldn’t sue. To make sure that wouldn’t happen, Berkeley waited for Alameda County to complete an Environmental Impact Report on the effect of banning bags in the county.  (Plastics manufactures have sued cities without EIRs.) It also wanted to see how the state Supreme Court would rule on a ban enacted in Manhattan Beach in southern California.

Now those pieces are in place.

Berkeley councilmember Kriss Worthington

In July, the court ruled that cities have a right to ban plastic bags, even without a full-blown environmental review.

In December 2011, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority certified an EIR, according to Jeff Becerra, the authority’s communication manager. The Waste Management Authority is expected to adopt a law on Jan. 25 banning the use of plastic bags in grocery and drug stores. The law would also require customers to pay 10 cents to get paper bags made from a high percentage of recycled content.

“It would be in stores that sell milk and bread – packaged goods,” said Becerra.

The law would cover all the cities in Alameda County except those who choose to opt out.

Since an EIR covering the entire county has been adopted, Worthington wants Berkeley to push ahead with its own law – one that would be tougher than the one the authority is expected to adopt. Worthington wants to ban plastic bags in almost every kind of establishment, except restaurants. He would like to make the ban voluntary in the first few years because he thinks stores and Berkeley residents are going to be eager to comply with the law.

“A majority of businesses will do it because it’s the law,” said Worthington. “Customers will demand it, and that will increase the percentage of businesses doing it.”

Worthington has an action item on the Jan. 31 City Council agenda requesting the city adopt a ban. He doesn’t expect it to pass that night. He just wants to give a push to the city manager’s office to bring a proposed law before the council soon.

“We don’t want this to wait in limbo for months and months,” said Worthington. “We want to do this promptly. I’m pushing it on the agenda rapidly because of the frustration of waiting all these years. I am trying to up the pressure on Berkeley to do something.”

Are plastics good or bad? An author explains [04.25.11]
Where does Berkeley’s green waste go? [06.23.11]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...