Almanac

News - March 6, 2013

Woodside: Bag ban goes back to the drawing board

by Dave Boyce

The Town Council in Woodside is doing some trailblazing as it moves the town toward a presumably greener future.

Like the councils in Portola Valley, Menlo Park and other communities in San Mateo County, the Woodside council is following the lead of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, which approved an ordinance in October 2012 to prohibit merchants from dispensing single-use plastic bags at checkout counters.

But in Woodside, merchants likely won't be required to charge customers 10 cents for a paper bag, as the county ordinance recommends in an attempt to get people to shop with their own cloth bags. By not requiring a paper-bag fee, Woodside merchants then will not have to keep records of how many paper bags they sell, nor will they face fines for not keeping such records.

There's no ordinance in Woodside yet, but these differences are the essence of the direction the council gave staff at its Feb. 26 meeting. Staff have redrafted this ordinance at least twice as the council has gradually eliminated provisions taken from the county version, which goes into effect in unincorporated communities on Earth Day, April 22.

The law becomes effective in Portola Valley and Menlo Park on Earth Day as well. In these and in unincorporated communities, the law allows retailers to use plastic bags for items such as food to go, prescription drugs, fresh produce, and small parts from hardware stores. Customers without bags of their own will have to buy a paper one — for 10 cents until Dec. 31, 2014, and 25 cents after that. People receiving food stamps are exempt, and retailers must keep records of the sale of paper bags.

Portola Valley did not change the language of its ordinance and adopted it "by reference" to the county version, thereby taking advantage of the county's extensive background work, including the protection of an environmental impact report (EIR) to discourage lawsuits by plastic bag manufacturers. While the language in Woodside's ordinance may differ from that of the county's ordinance, the proposed changes will not preclude the advantages of the county's EIR, Woodside Town Manager Kevin Bryant said.

Other communities that adopted the county's ordinance without changes include South San Francisco, Belmont, Pacifica, Daly City, Colma, Foster City, San Bruno, and Half Moon Bay, county spokeswoman Robyn Thaw said. San Carlos is expected to do so in July.

The draft EIR projects a reduction of 34 percent county-wide in ground-level emissions that contribute to acid rain and ozone. The bags also find their way into the oceans, and elsewhere. "Plastic bags have a huge environmental impact," Woodside resident Nancy Reyering told the council. Asian steppes are littered with bags that originate in Europe and Africa, she said. "There are plastic bags as far as the eye can see."

Council split

Woodside council members spent maybe 30 minutes in a spirited discussion on what they wanted for the town. In three straw polls, a simple ban on the single-use plastic bags passed 4-3, with "no" votes from members Tom Shanahan and Dave Burow and Mayor Anne Kasten. Charging a fee for paper bags went down 6-1, with Councilman Ron Romines in the minority. The council unanimously rejected administrative fines.

"Charging for the bags ... encourages a change in behavior, encourages what is ultimately intended here, that people bring their own bags," Mr. Romines said. "Habits are hard to break," he added. "Simple things like this can change our behavior."

County environmental official Waymond Wong attended the meeting to take questions, and Mr. Burow used the occasion to sound off. "I think this is (an) example of government with good intentions intruding into peoples' lives," he said. "We have a structural deficit in this county. We should be helping the poor, helping the aged, and not be spending money on this! It's crazy."

Charging for paper bags is "an income transfer," Mr. Shanahan said. "It's 10 cents out of my neighbor's pocket. It's not very much, but why am I making that decision?"

"Because as a matter of public policy, we're trying to encourage behavior that makes our environment a little better," Mr. Romines replied.

A small fee isn't going to change anyone's behavior in Woodside, Councilwoman Deborah Gordon said.

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