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Is 'paper or plastic' a thing of the past?

A plastic bag drifts in the pond at Lucchesi Park.

John O'Hara/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 12:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 9:52 a.m.

“Paper or plastic” may soon become a question of the past if Petaluma joins other cities throughout Sonoma County in supporting a proposed countywide ban on carryout plastic bags at grocers and retailers.

The county's proposal — approved by the Board of Supervisors in June — also features a 10-cent fee for paper bags, added to encourage people to buy reusable shopping bags. The ordinance requires unanimous approval from all nine Sonoma County cities.

So far, Sonoma, Windsor, Sebastopol and the county have voted yes. Petaluma, which is set to hear the county's pitch at its July 15 City Council meeting, seems to be leaning that way as well.

“When I walk along the Petaluma Boulevard South traffic circle, I see lots of discarded plastic bags,” said Councilmember Chris Albertson, who lives in that area. “They blow into the marsh lands, they hang from trees like flags, birds can get tangled in them and I just don't see what good they can provide.”

The county has toyed with the idea of a plastic bag ban for several years, studying and developing a proposal that is meant to shift consumers to reusable bags, reduce litter and offer other environmental benefits.

The last time the county tried to pass a ban in 2008, Santa Rosa voted no and instead called for a greater recycling effort. Currently, Sonoma County uses an estimated 260 million plastic bags and 46 million paper bags each year.

Petaluma City Council members all said they supported the idea of a plastic bag ban, but added that they would need to see the county's proposal before signing on to the ordinance.

“I support banning plastic bags, but there has to be no downside whatsoever to it,” said Mayor David Glass. “I just want to make sure that we won't run into any legal troubles in the future from it.”

But not all of Petaluma's elected officials completely support the proposal. David Rabbitt, Petaluma's representative on the Board of Supervisors, was the only dissenting vote at the county level. He said that his “no” vote stemmed from the 10-cent fee, and not the ban on plastic bags. Under the county's proposal, the proceeds from the mandatory 10-cent paper bag fee would go directly to the retailer.

“I would ban plastic bags tomorrow if I could,” Rabbitt said Monday. “But my angst comes from charging 10 cents for a paper bag. I'd be OK with that charge if it were voluntary and we let each store decide. It's not a bad ordinance, but I think it could be better.”

Rabbitt said that charging a mandatory 10-cent fee was tantamount to a tax, especially because the consumer would not be getting anything for their 10 cents. “Bags are a cost of doing business,” he said. “With the 10-cent fee, the consumer gets nothing and is still charged.”

If approved, Sonoma County's ordinance would affect grocery, clothing, electronics convenience, liquor and drug stores. It would not apply to plastic trash bags or bags used to carry meat, vegetables or prescriptions. Restaurants, delis, thrift stores, nonprofits would be exempt from the ban.

More than 75 cities and counties throughout California have similar plastic bag bans in place. A statewide bill put forth by Petaluma's State Assemblyman Marc Levine is also moving its way through the legislature. The California Grocers Association has backed countywide measures throughout the state. Locally, Safeway, Lucky Supermarkets, Raley's and G&G Market have all voiced their support of the ban.

The Petaluma City Council will hear the county's presentation on Monday, July 15 at 6:45 p.m.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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