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Getting to Zero Waste: Banning Plastic Bags


Posted by BAAQMD, July 2012.

Waste and GHGs

Waste reduction is a common goal in climate action plans to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from landfills.


Paper or Plastic?

Paper (at a cost), or even better, reusable bags, is the growing response by Bay Area cities and counties to this question. A few Bay Area cities started to regulate the use of plastic bags several years ago; however, San Jose’s 2012 ban on plastic bags has opened the flood gates and numerous Bay Area cities and counties have joined the effort.

San Jose

The City of San Jose adopted a zero waste initiative as part of their Green Vision Goals, an aggressive effort to address climate change and promote sustainability. The City identified plastic bags as a solid waste and litter problem. Discarded plastic bags litter San Jose’s streets and creeks. Studies found that the State of California spends $25 million annually to clean up plastic bags from storm drains, creeks, and roadways. Also, recycling plastic bags has proven more troublesome than realistic. Despite California’s fifteen year effort to push plastic bag recycling, only five percent of used plastic bags actually get recycled.

Starting in January 1, 2012, San Jose became the largest city in the state to ban the distribution of plastic bags. The City’s plastic bag ordinance mandates the following:

  1. Grocery stores, pharmacies, small and large retailers can no longer provide plastic carryout bags at checkout;
  2. Stores may still provide paper bags made of 40% post-consumer recycled material and charge a minimum of 10 cents for each bag. After the initial two years, the store charge will increase to a minimum of 25 cents for paper bags. The charge will be retained by the store;
  3. Customers purchasing food with WIC and CalFresh “food stamps” may be provided a recycled content paper bag at no cost for the first two years of the ban.

The City prepared an environmental impact report (EIR) under CEQA for the ordinance. In the EIR, San Jose estimates a net reduction of 95% of 500 million plastic bags per year in San Jose. The EIR also outlined the following goals for the ordinance:

  1. Minimizing the dedication of non-renewable resources to single-use carryout bags.
  2. Facilitating the change in consumer behavior toward the use of reusable bags in San Jose. 
  3. Eliminating the annual distribution of an estimated 568 million single-use carryout bags by 2013 through regulating their free distribution at retail establishments. 
  4. Minimizing to the greatest extent feasible the amount of single-use carryout bag litter contaminating public and private property in San Jose, polluting streets, parks, sidewalks, storm and sewer systems, creeks, and streams.
  5. Minimizing to the greatest extent feasible the quantity of single-use carryout bag litter polluting streams and other water bodies in Santa Clara County and the San Francisco Bay Area, and contaminating the world’s oceans.
  6. Minimizing to the greatest extent feasible the presence of plastic bags in the City’s recycling program, where they contaminate recovered material streams and clog processing equipment.

The City created a number of outreach tools to assist retailers in implementing the ordinance including: a retailer  toolkit, lists of where to purchase paper bags and reusable bags, and information materials in other languages.

Plastic Bag Bans Around the Bay

San Mateo County is moving ahead with adopting a similar ordinance as the City of San Jose. The County has partnered with 24 cities to prepare the ordinance’s EIR process, helping to alleviate the burden of preparing an EIR on individual cities.  The participating cities will be able to apply the EIR if and when they decide to move ahead with a similar plastic bag ban ordinance. The partnership includes: Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, Campbell, Colma, Cupertino, Daly City, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Milpitas, Mountain View, Pacifica, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Mateo, South San Francisco, and Woodside.

The City of San Francisco, which began banning plastic bags from grocery stores in 2006, is expanding its ordinance to include all retail stores and restaurants; and to charge ten cents per paper bag. 

Marin County’s plastic bag ordinance went into effect Jan 1, 2012. The County’s ordinance applies to the county’s unincorporated areas and sets a minimum charge of five cents versus ten cents per paper bag.

The City of Sunnyvale’s plastic bag ban is identical to San Jose’s and went into effect June 20, 2012.

The City of Millbrae’s plastic bag ban, also identical to San Jose’s ordinance, goes into effect September 2012.  As part of its outreach effort, the City distributed over 5,000 free reusable shopping bags made from recycled plastic bottles to residents. 

Alameda County’s plastic bag ban will go into effect in January 2013. Similarly to San Mateo, Alameda County ssought to reduce some of the burden from developing an ordinance and preparing an EIR from cities. The County created a model ordinance for other cities to use as well and the EIR may be applicable to other cities as well.

The City of Palo Alto plastic bag ordinance, and update of its original 2009 ordinance, will go into effect in April 2013. 

The City of Fairfax adopted its plastic bag ban in November 2004.

Lawsuit Risk

San Francisco recently reported a win in court that may make adopting such an ordinance less risky for other cities.

PRESS RELEASE: SF’s Single-Use Bag Ordinance Wins in Court: Superior Court Rejects SPBC’s Request for Preliminary Injunction June 14, 2012

San Francisco, June 14, 2012 – In an Order issued yesterday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teri L. Jackson denied Save the Plastic Bag Coalition’s (SPBC) request for a preliminary injunction which would have stopped the city from preparing to implement itsexpanded single-use bag ordinance set to take effect October 1, 2012.  With this ruling, the city can continue its preparations, including outreach to local businesses.

“In determining whether a preliminary injunction is appropriate, the court must weigh the likelihood of the moving party ultimately prevailing on the merits and the relative harm to the parties from the issuance or non-issuance of the injunction,” said Jennie Romer, founder of  “In denying SPBC’s request, the court focused on the lack showing of harm by SPBC.”

“Petitioner’s motion for a preliminary injunction is denied,” wrote Judge Teri L. Jackson in the Order.  “The showing of harm is vague and speculative.  The Court finds that Petitioner has not shown that the environment, the public interest and Petitioner’s members would suffer harm from denial of the injunction.”

“By adopting the expanded ordinance earlier this year at all retailers and restaurants and includes a ban on plastic bags and a 10-cent charge for paper and reusable bags,” said Ms. Romer, “San Francisco has adopted the most comprehensive single-use bag ordinance in the country.  This ruling upholds that policy.”

SPBC’s lawsuit was expected.  SPBC, an association made up primarily of plastic bag manufacturers, has sued or threatened to sue almost every California city moving forward with a plastic bag ordinance.  The San Francisco lawsuit includes two claims:  that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is required under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and that the inclusion of restaurants is preempted under the California Retail Food Code.

“San Francisco’s lawsuit is particularly important because San Francisco adopted its expanded single-use bag ordinance pursuant to a categorical exemption under CEQA – an exemption that was put in place so that EIRs do not have to be prepared for activities involving protection of the environment,” said Ms. Romer.  “Cities all over the state are waiting to see what happens with this case before deciding how to move forward.”

“The ruling denying SPBC’s request for a preliminary injunction is great news,” said Ms. Romer, “but the court battle over San Francisco’s expanded ordinance is far from over.”  The hearing on the merits of the CEQA action as well as the Demurrer filed by the city regarding the Retail Food Code is set for June 28, 2012 at 1:30 p.m.


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