Plastic bag ban is now in effect

That age-old question — "paper or plastic?" — received a final answer last week when the countywide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags went into effect. While full enforcement of the ban on these shopping bags doesn't begin until Sept. 1, most local markets have already begun implementing the policy — including the 10-cent-per-bag fee for paper bags to give shoppers an incentive to carry reusable bags.

The ban was passed by Sonoma County Waste Management Agency on Feb. 19, and went into effect 30 days later, on Friday, March 21. Written into the ordinance is a five-month delay in enforcement to allow retailers a chance to use up their current inventory of plastic bags. After that date, plastic bags at supermarkets should only be used to wrap meats, produce or bulk foods, to separate them from other grocery items. Bags to hold prescription medications are also excluded from the ban.

The ban is motivated by environmental concerns about large amounts of non-biodegradable plastic in landfills and the environment, and an increasing number of local shoppers have been changing over their habits to reusable bags.

A spot check of area stores shows that some, like Petaluma Market and G&G Market, are planning to work through their inventory of existing plastic bags and hold off charging shoppers for paper bags as long as possible. At Petaluma Market, manager Jamie Downing said so far they haven't made any changes to their bagging behavior, so customers haven't really responded — other than asking questions about it. Downing estimated they have "a couple weeks" of plastic bags left. Following that, they will start charging 10-cents each for the paper bags.

It's not just the smaller and independent stores that are adapting. While Safeway is not yet charging for paper bags, they will probably do so in the next few weeks, according to Keith Turner of Safeway's Northern California division. "We anticipate that the change will go smoothly, as employees are versed on the new rules," he said. "We will be offering a selection of reusable bags for purchase, and there will be an in-store promotion on reusable bags."

Petaluma's Raley's, which has not bagged groceries in plastic bags for four years, is unusual in that they do not plan to charge customers for paper bags until Sept. 1. Trader Joe's, on the other hand, although they also have not been bagging groceries with plastic bags for some time, is now charging customers 10 cents per paper bag, per the ordinance.

"Most of the bags we use for our customers are the recyclable brown paper bags," according to Alison Mochizuichi of the chain's public relations office in Monrovia.

The ordinance itself does not require the 10-cent a bag charge until Sept. 1, and actually allows for a higher charge if the store finds it necessary. It reads as follows: "On and after Sept. 1, 2014, a retail establishment may make available for sale to a customer a recycled paper bag for a minimum charge of 10-cents."

"The 'may' in there is that stores may provide bags, we're not saying they have to or not, that's their decision. But if they do, the charge is 10-cents, minimum," said Patrick Carter of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.

(Contact Christian Kallen at argus@arguscou rier.com)