SAN DIEGO — A proposed ban that would keep most retail outlets from using plastic bags to pack customer purchases was passed unanimously Wednesday by the City Council’s Rules and Economic Development Committee.
The next steps are an environmental review and a tweaking of the language of the proposed law by the City Attorney’s Office, so it might not reach the full City Council for adoption for nine months to one year from now, according to staff.
Eliminating the wispy thin bags is a major priority for environmentalists, who contend they scatter across beaches and get into the ocean, where they harm marine life. Also, 95 percent end up in landfills, taking up valuable space.
The ordinance would ban plastic bags at most stores, mandate a 10 cent per bag charge for customers who ask for paper bags, and require shopkeepers to maintain records for three years.
Plastic bags could still be used for meat, produce and prescription medications. Also, the restrictions would not apply to charities, large non- food retailers like Home Depot and customers who participate in government food programs.
“I think everyone here agrees that we should reduce waste, litter and pollution for the sake of our own environment, as well as our quality of life,” committee member Mark Kersey said. “This is San Diego, we all love the outdoors. We want clean beaches and bays.”
Kersey said he was troubled, however, by a piecemeal approach in which San Diego residents could just as easily shop at stores in suburban cities that don’t have such a ban. The policy issue would be best handled by the state, but such bills have been repeatedly voted down in the Legislature in recent years, he said.
The councilman added that he was concerned by the inequity of exempting huge hardware stores while smaller establishments get stuck with the regulatory burden. Staff with the city’s Department of Environmental Services said the exemptions included in the proposed ordinance generally match what has been adopted by 85 other cities around California.
“There’s a lot of inconsistencies I don’t understand” in the proposed ordinance, Kersey said.
Committee Chairwoman Sherri Lightner said she wants to see the ban adopted and reviewed one or two years later, after which the largest retailers could be made to comply.
She said “simply hoping” that more people will return plastic bags to retailers for recycling is no longer good enough.
“Our canyons, waterways, storm drain systems, streets and landfills deserve better,” Lightner said.
The ban has overwhelming support from San Diego Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit environmental organization.
“Plastic bags are really just the easiest place for a city, for a jurisdiction, to really have an impact on the plastic pollution problem,” said Roger Kube, volunteer chairman. “But it’s truly just the tip of the iceberg.”
Opponents admit the intentions are good, but disagree with the ordinance itself.
Mark Arabo heads the Neighborhood Market Association, which represents more than 800 family-owned grocery stores in San Diego County.
“We’re asking for an exemption for stores 10,000 sq. ft. and below,” said Arabo. “So where the bags are coming out of, do it to them, but the ones that are the small markets in the under-served areas those will be hit the hardest.”
Arabo said even if the ordinance is passed his stores will not charge customers.
“Unless they find some legal way that we have to charge, we will fight it until the end,” said Arabo.
On Tuesday, the Encinitas-based Equinox Center released a report which concludes the proposed ordinance would reduce the number of bags used in the city of San Diego by 70 percent.
The center found that 500 million of the bags are used in San Diego annually, and 350 million fewer would be used if the proposed ordinance was adopted.
The executive director of the center, Lani Lutar, supports a bag ban.
The Equinox Center report found that neither retailers nor consumers suffered significant economic damage in the jurisdictions around the state where bans are in effect.
Some costs went up for stores as customers opted for paper bags, but the center suggested most patrons will make the transition to reusable bags. Customers shelled out $7.70 to buy reusable bags in cities where a ban went into effect, but those costs should go away because they can be used for years, according to the report.