In April of this year, the Board of Supervisors made a significant first step in addressing an area of major environmental concern when we initiated the process to enact a county ordinance banning single-use plastic carry-out bags and reducing use of paper carry out bags. The action taken by the Board is only a first step in what will be a lengthy process.
Last year I was contacted by local environmental groups who provided information about other jurisdictions in California that have taken action to reduce the litter and pollution caused by plastic and paper single-use bags. Plastic bags are a petroleum product that not only consume enormous resources during their production, but also tend to be casually discarded, causing significant damage to the environment. Statewide, only 5 percent of these plastic bags are recycled. The production of paper bags adds to deforestation and uses large amounts of energy and water.
I felt it was time for Santa Cruz County to get moving on this issue, and in November 2009, I initiated a Board of Supervisors request to County Public Works to study the actions taken in other jurisdictions and recommend an ordinance that could be enacted locally. The result was the proposal that was supported unanimously by the Board at the April 13, 2010 meeting. It is actually a proposed county ordinance that still requires a lengthy environmental review process and does not have a specific timeline. It offers a set of specific recommendations from which we are working and public discussion and comment will be essential to the final outcome.
The proposed ordinance addresses point of purchase single-use plastic and paper bags at all retailers in the unincorporated areas of the county. Because state law prohibits placing fees on plastic bags, in order to exert control over plastic bag pollution, jurisdictions are left only with the option of banning them outright. This ordinance would do so. There are no restrictions under state law regarding regulation of paper bags. This ordinance proposes a fee of $.10 per single-use paper bag starting one year after the ordinance is enacted. After another year, the fee would increase to $.25, subject to periodic review by the Board of Supervisors. Any fees collected would be retained by the retailer, offsetting the cost of providing bags. The fees on paper bags would not apply to customers who participate in government subsidized food programs for low-income residents, including the WIC Special Supplemental Food Program and the Food Stamp program. Additionally, all single-use paper bags would be required to contain a minimum of 40 percent post consumer recycled fiber. The ordinance also encourages retailers to offer low cost, permanent bags that can be reused over a long period of time.
There is litigation taking place at the state level that could affect aspects of our final ordinance. In several decisions, California courts have struck down anti-plastic bag ordinances, ruling that because the ordinances may have environmental consequences, a full Environmental Impact Report is required under the California Environmental Quality Act. The California Supreme Court is currently reviewing the decision by a lower court in one of these cases, Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach. Hopefully, because it complies with state law and because we plan to conduct a full Environmental Impact Report, our ordinance will avoid litigation.
This ordinance would serve to remind people of their role in reducing negative environmental impacts and would encourage recycling and reuse. As the county moves forward with this proposal, we hope we will be joined by the four cities in Santa Cruz County, as well as jurisdictions statewide. There are also environmental groups working with large retailers to enact voluntary restrictions statewide. While there is movement on this issue, it is still slow and incremental. At least locally we are taking the initiative.