Plastic “pre-checkout” bags, like these in the produce section of Berkeley Bowl West, will be prohibited under a new ordinance. Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, stores will have to provide paper bags instead, and charge customers 10 cents apiece for them. Credit: Nico Savidge Credit: Nico Savidge, Berkeleyside

When grocery shopping in Berkeley next year, you’ll have to bring your own tote or be prepared to pay for a paper bag. Just don’t expect to find the thicker, “reusable” plastic bags that have become the norm at some checkout counters in the decade since Alameda County banned flimsy single-use plastic bags.

On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting grocery stores, farmers’ markets and vendors at city-sponsored events from providing non-compostable plastic bags to customers beginning in January. 

The legislation, co-authored by councilmembers Kate Harrison and Sophie Hahn, also bans pre-checkout bags like the light-green plastic bags usually offered, free of charge, in produce sections of grocery stores. Many of those “green” bags, while frequently labeled as biodegradable, still end up in the landfill — even after being sent to compost facilities. That’s because they take longer to break down than most food waste. 

Berkeley stores will have to switch to offering “truly” compostable pre-checkout bags, like those made of paper, and charge 10 cents apiece. They will also be required to “reasonably” accept customers’ own reusable bags and containers. Businesses will keep the revenue from bag charges.

State leaders have already moved to close the pre-checkout bag loophole. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom approved SB 1046, banning pre-checkout bags, but the legislation won’t go into effect until 2025.

The city’s tougher plastic bag ban will function as a “glide path for people to get used to the fact that these (bags) are going away,” Harrison said. Plus, once people make a habit of bringing in their own containers, businesses won’t have to pay for as many plastic bags. “It’s a win-win for them, and it’s a message for the rest of us.”

For the most part, restaurants will still be able to provide plastic bags, with one major exception: If you sit down to eat in a restaurant and want to take home leftovers in a carryout bag, you’ll have to shell out 10 cents apiece.

The ordinance is Berkeley’s latest move to curb plastic consumption. (In 1988, the city banned styrofoam. In 2019, it banned restaurants from handing out plastic utensils unless requested.) 

Environmental advocates like Jan Dell, the founder of The Last Beach Cleanup and a member of the California Recycling Commission, are thrilled.

“These bags aren’t actually getting recycled … they’re worthless plastic waste,” Dell said. “For Berkeley to take the lead and say, Yeah, we recognize, as a city, these things aren’t recyclable, we’re just not going to allow them to be sold,’ is just fantastic.”

As a next step, Dell said she hopes Berkeley will tighten its rules on the types of plastic residents can toss into curbside bins. Most plastic reprocessing facilities in the U.S. want number 1 and 2 plastic containers, Dell explained. When you mix in unwanted plastic containers, these facilities have to sort through them — sometimes by hand — and throw them away. Lenient recycling policies drive up recycling costs, she said, and could fool residents into thinking they’re helping the planet even when they’re not.

A Berkeley Bowl representative also said it’s onboard with the ordinance, and met with Harrison to discuss how the ban might impact local grocery stores before the City Council vote.

“We remain committed to being responsible members of the community,” Berkeley Bowl spokesperson Chi Dixon said in an email. “We have been searching for truly compostable bags as well for some time now, and we will look into paper as well to ensure we are in compliance with the state and local regulations.”

The ordinance will cost the city roughly $350,000 a year in staff time, according to city documents. The sum will be used to hire additional staff for business and community outreach, implementation and enforcement — which will likely come in the form of a complaint system. “We’re not going to send inspectors out to tag restaurants and stores,” Harrison said.

While the ordinance goes into effect in January, the city won’t start enforcing it until June, giving businesses roughly half a year to make adjustments, after which it may begin fining violators. Harrison said education, not enforcement, is the goal. 

“Sometimes you do need to buy a bag,” Harrison said. “(We’re) helping people recognize the cost of it.”

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...