Banning the Bag

altIf and when local cities plan to follow in the county’s footsteps

Many local shoppers are accustomed to no longer hearing the once common question of “paper or plastic?” as they check out at the market. This is because of grocery stores like New Leaf Community Markets, which offer only paper bags and encourage shoppers to bring in reusable, multi-use bags. Across California, reusable shopping bags have become a staple of environmentalism and consumer responsibility in many counties.

“We use over 12 billion plastic bags statewide every year—that’s 380 per second,” said Kelsey Grimsley, the UC Santa Cruz California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) chapter chair and “oceans coordinator,” at a March 7 event. More than 267 species are affected by plastic debris, she adds, including sea turtles, marine mammals, birds and fish.

Beginning March 20, all businesses—except restaurants—in unincorporated Santa Cruz County were required to no longer offer plastic bags. The area’s incorporated cities of Scotts Valley, Capitola, Santa Cruz, and Watsonville have yet to pass similar ordinances.

County supervisors halted the process for nearly two years after the ban was proposed, anticipating an expensive legal battle with the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition after observing the coalition’s basis for past and present lawsuits against other municipal bans. The slow and measured process has led those at city governments to also move forward cautiously.

Save Our Shores’ Executive Director Laura Kasa joined Grimsley at the March 7 event, where CALPIRG students gathered to present anti-plastic bag data and gather signatures for a petition calling the City of Santa Cruz to action. So far, Grimsley reports that 25 percent of UCSC students have signed.

Save Our Shores was instrumental in raising awareness about the issues surrounding plastic bags, and is a big local player in the push to ban them. As she celebrates the county ban, Kasa says she is confident that the movement to pass bans at the city levels is also gaining impetus.

“It was definitely an uphill battle,” Kasa said at the UCSC event. “[But] we have the momentum.”

Save Our Shores has even inspired some restaurants—such as the Davenport Roadhouse and Betty Burgers, who are not affected by the ban—to voluntarily give up plastic bags.
“I agreed to take the restaurants out strategically,” Supervisor Mark Stone says of the exemption, which led to the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition agreeing to drop a pending lawsuit.
“I’m very happy about the way that it stands right now,” adds Stone. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to address other parts of it, like restaurants, as we need to in the future.”

The biggest issue for Santa Cruz County and all of the incorporated cities, Stone says, is that there is no standardized ordinance for the businesses to follow.

And there won’t be one as long as Stephen Joseph, the leader of Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, has anything to say about it. The San Francisco attorney, who Time.com has called the “patron saint of plastic bags,” vehemently opposes bans all over the state by suing county boards and city councils alike. He was unable to be reached for comment.    

Seemingly undeterred, the City of Santa Cruz’s drafted ordinance has been changed to mirror the county’s version and could go before the city council as early as March 27. However, Bob Nelson, the city’s superintendant of solid waste collection, worries that Joseph may cause more problems for them.

“[He] seems to sue everyone, every time they try [to ban the plastic bag],” Nelson says. “We’ve taken out restaurants too, but he may find something else.” Nelson is hopeful that good environmental development may deter any lawsuits brought by the coalition.

In contrast, Scotts Valley is taking a “wait and see approach,” in response to the coalition’s legal actions toward the county.

“We will see how the implementation goes and then look at adopting a similar ordinance,” says Scott Hamby, Scotts Valley’s wastewater and environmental program manager. Hamby estimates they will draft a similar ordinance in a few months.

Capitola is also waiting for the county’s ordinance to pass and the dust to settle. A similar ordinance was drafted but they decided to take a step back.

“[Joseph] basically stated in so many words that if I moved forward with a ban he would most likely sue the city,” says Lisa Murphy, Capitola’s administrative services director.

As far as Watsonville is concerned, the same precautionary path is being taken, but the desire to have a standardized countywide ban—that would include incorporated cities—is very strong.

“Watsonville has not yet acted on it, [and the] plan is to try and mirror the county’s work so that it simplifies things for the residents,” says Watsonville City Councilmember Lowell Hurst. “[We’re] not sure how exemptions for restaurants are going to shake out, but I look forward to that coming to council perhaps in the next month or shortly thereafter.”

All cities seem to agree: by banning the plastic bag, communities can clean up their streams and oceans, potentially save marine life, and save taxpayers money. But even without the threat of litigation and with a ban in place, public outreach is the most important element in inspiring people to change their actions.

“The ordinance is not going to solve the problem, obviously,” says Stone. “In order to modify our behavior we should use multi-use bags—and as a society, if we do that, we’ll make a much bigger impact on the environment.”

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