A Berkeley council member wants to dramatically expand local restrictions on plastic bags, with a new proposed ordinance that would almost entirely banish the containers from stores and restaurants.
The legislation from Councilmember Kate Harrison would outlaw the thick, reusable plastic grocery and takeout bags that many businesses have switched to using since Alameda County’s ban on flimsier single-use bags took effect in 2013. And it would broadly prohibit stores from providing the plastic “pre-checkout” bags typically used for produce or bulk items.
Harrison’s proposal is in the early stages of what is likely to be a months-long legislative process. It will come before the Berkeley City Council as a referral to the Zero Waste and Energy commissions on Tuesday.
While the ordinance would allow the use of paper bags instead of plastic ones, Harrison said the goal is to push people to reduce their consumption of bags altogether.
“It starts a trend of people realizing that bringing your own (bags) is possible,” Harrison said. “Understanding that the throw-away society has a cost is important.”
Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said he does not know of any city that has enacted restrictions on plastic bags that are as stringent as what Harrison is proposing.
The ordinance would apply to grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, food trucks and vendors at permitted events such as farmers markets; customers would have to pay 10 cents apiece for paper bags if they don’t bring their own.
The legislation has only a few exceptions — restaurants could use plastic bags to package hot liquids, such as a takeout soup order, and grocery store meat and seafood counters could use pre-checkout bags if customers request them.
The measure also requires that, by 2023, all paper bags be made entirely from recycled materials.
Advocates who regard thin single-use plastic bags as an environmental menace once accepted their thicker counterparts as a compromise measure. While they were still made of plastic, meaning they required fossil fuels to produce and wouldn’t biodegrade, the bags were sturdy enough to be reused over 100 times. If consumers got in the habit of reusing their bags, they would be consuming less plastic overall and the bags could have a smaller lifetime carbon footprint than paper or flimsy plastic alternatives.
But, Murray said, the thick plastic bag hasn’t lived up to that potential.
“It’s better only if it’s reused,” he said. “The problem is that consumers are not reusing them — they’re becoming a two-time use bag, maybe a three-time use bag.”
By going after pre-checkout bags, Harrison’s proposal also takes aim at one of the last bastions of the flimsy plastic bag. Neither Alameda County’s bag ordinance nor the state restrictions on thin plastic bags that voters upheld in 2016 regulated those pre-checkout containers.
Under the proposed Berkeley ordinance stores would have to provide paper produce bags instead, and charge customers 10 cents apiece for them.
“When something is free, people grab handfuls of it,” Harrison said. But if those bags had a small fee, she said, customers would be more likely to skip the bag or bring their own from home.
The legislation is likely to face opposition from manufacturers of plastic bags, who have fought past efforts to restrict the containers. A spokesperson from the Plastics Industry Association did not respond to requests for comment about Harrison’s proposal.
If Harrison’s proposal is adopted and proves popular, however, Murray said it could spread to other communities.
“The local ordinances become the incubator for the idea,” Murray said. “We need communities like Berkeley to take the lead and demonstrate how it can be done.”
That future is still a long way off, however. The referral that goes before the City Council on Tuesday asks the Zero Waste and Energy commissions to hold public outreach meetings with grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses that would be affected by the proposal. Harrison said it’s likely to take the better part of a year before a final ordinance comes to the City Council for a vote.
Berkeley Bowl spokesperson Chi Dixon said the store, where customers stuff thin plastic pre-checkout bags full of cherry tomatoes and bulk lentils, is not taking a position on the proposed ordinance at this point but plans to be involved in discussions about it.
“We’re always looking for ways to be more environmentally conscious and pay attention to our carbon footprint,” Dixon said, noting that the store encourages customers to bring their own bags and sells reusable mesh produce sacks.
But she also foresaw ways the requirements could be troublesome for a store that stocks such a wide variety of items.
“There are some products that probably won’t work” in a paper bag, Dixon said, such as greens that are sprayed with water, or peanuts that are roasted in oil, which could make a paper bag deteriorate. And supplies of paper bags have sometimes been unreliable since the pandemic began, she said.
Murray noted there were also practical concerns when local governments, and eventually California as a whole, banned single-use plastic bags; soon enough, though, lots of people made a habit of bringing their own bags.
“The lesson learned from the ban of the single-use plastic grocery bag is that society survived,” Murray said. “People make adjustments.”