"Paper or plastic?" It's a question we hear from clerks just about anytime we go shopping. But before long, that question should change to "Did you bring a reusable bag?"
Based on indisputable evidence showing that the proliferation of single-use plastic bags is doing substantial harm to the environment, city and county officials are finally poised to approve a countywide ban on carryout plastic bags at grocers and retailers.
It's been several years since the county first began to explore enacting such a ban, so it's high time for action on the proposal.
If approved, Sonoma County's ordinance would affect grocery, clothing, electronics convenience, liquor and drug stores. Common sense exemptions in the ordinance would include plastic trash bags or bags used to carry meat, vegetables or prescriptions. Restaurants, delis, thrift stores and nonprofits would be exempt from the ban.
The proposed law also features a 10-cent fee for paper bags, added to encourage people to buy reusable shopping bags and deflect potential litigation from the plastic bag manufacturing industry.
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 Monday night's City Council meeting, seems to be leaning that way as well.
The proposed law makes all the sense in the world. In California alone, we use 19 billion plastic bags every year, generating more than 147,000 tons of unnecessary waste. In Sonoma County, more than 260 million plastic bags are distributed each year, with estimates showing that each of us uses more than 130 plastic bags annually.
The vast majority of these bags, which are manufactured using fossil fuels, are used only once. More than 90 percent wind up in landfills or as litter, draped across tree limbs and shrubs. Many find their way into rivers and storm drain systems, and eventually enter the ocean, threatening marine life. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic bags are the third most commonly littered item and account for 10 percent of wildlife entanglements. In the Pacific Ocean, there is a giant floating patch of garbage called the Pacific Trash Vortex, much of it comprised of plastic bags that do not biodegrade.
To combat this growing environmental problem, more than 75 cities and counties in California have already enacted bans on single-use plastic bags, including the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, and the counties of Los Angeles, Alameda, Marin, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Luis Obispo.
It's time for Sonoma County to join their ranks.
The California Grocers Association has backed countywide plastic bag bans throughout the state. Locally, Petaluma Market, Safeway, Lucky Supermarkets, Raley's and G&G Market have all voiced their support for the ban.
Predictably, the plastics industry has opposed such bans and has filed lawsuits in some jurisdictions to prevent such laws from being enacted because they lessen demand for plastic bags. The lengthy delay in drafting and approving the Sonoma County law, which includes a voluminous environmental impact report, was largely due to the need to ensure it could withstand a legal challenge.
The Petaluma City Council will hear the county's presentation on Monday at 6:45 p.m. If Petaluma and other cities voice approval, the ordinance will go into effect in January.