Will Berkeley pass a plastic bag ban soon?

Berkeley drew up a model ordinance about banning plastic bags in 2009, but nothing has happened since then. Photo: Creative Commons

Kriss Worthington is tired of waiting.

More than six years ago, the Berkeley councilmember suggested that the city ban the use of plastic grocery bags.

At the time, the idea was new and Worthington liked the notion of Berkeley leading the nation by passing an environmentally friendly law.

Since then, more than 100 cities, counties and countries have banned the use of plastic grocery bags. In 2007, San Francisco was the first city in the country to pass legislation outlawing the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and pharmacy chains.

Berkeley has done nothing.

“It’s an important environmental policy,” said Worthington. “To me, it’s sort of embarrassing that it was proposed in Berkeley before anywhere else. Now all these other places have policies. It’s time we get a policy.”

Berkeley’s inaction on banning plastic bags is not for lack of trying. It even has a model ordinance drawn up, written way back in 2009.

But city officials have been reluctant to pass a law until it was certain that plastic bag manufacturers wouldn’t sue. To make sure that wouldn’t happen, Berkeley waited for Alameda County to complete an Environmental Impact Report on the effect of banning bags in the county.  (Plastics manufactures have sued cities without EIRs.) It also wanted to see how the state Supreme Court would rule on a ban enacted in Manhattan Beach in southern California.

Now those pieces are in place.

Berkeley councilmember Kriss Worthington

In July, the court ruled that cities have a right to ban plastic bags, even without a full-blown environmental review.

In December 2011, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority certified an EIR, according to Jeff Becerra, the authority’s communication manager. The Waste Management Authority is expected to adopt a law on Jan. 25 banning the use of plastic bags in grocery and drug stores. The law would also require customers to pay 10 cents to get paper bags made from a high percentage of recycled content.

“It would be in stores that sell milk and bread – packaged goods,” said Becerra.

The law would cover all the cities in Alameda County except those who choose to opt out.

Since an EIR covering the entire county has been adopted, Worthington wants Berkeley to push ahead with its own law – one that would be tougher than the one the authority is expected to adopt. Worthington wants to ban plastic bags in almost every kind of establishment, except restaurants. He would like to make the ban voluntary in the first few years because he thinks stores and Berkeley residents are going to be eager to comply with the law.

“A majority of businesses will do it because it’s the law,” said Worthington. “Customers will demand it, and that will increase the percentage of businesses doing it.”

Worthington has an action item on the Jan. 31 City Council agenda requesting the city adopt a ban. He doesn’t expect it to pass that night. He just wants to give a push to the city manager’s office to bring a proposed law before the council soon.

“We don’t want this to wait in limbo for months and months,” said Worthington. “We want to do this promptly. I’m pushing it on the agenda rapidly because of the frustration of waiting all these years. I am trying to up the pressure on Berkeley to do something.”

Are plastics good or bad? An author explains [04.25.11]
Where does Berkeley’s green waste go? [06.23.11]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

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  • Alan Tobey

    Making a new law “voluntary” sounds like an oxymoron, esp. on the grounds that the majority of citizens will rise up and demand to be inconvenienced (as many will see it). 

    What’s happened to the pioneering civic spine Berkeley used to have?  As the story affirms, this ban is years overdue.

    Better than passing a non-law law, we should just see what the county measure accomplishes and then later pass an actual non-optional stronger law if it proves to be needed. 

  • carolyn

    I thinks it’s a great idea to get rid of plastic and we (Berkeley) are way behind the times. In France you’ve had to bring your owns bags for years!

  • Mark Rhoades, AICP

    Wait to see if bag companies would sue? Huh? This is a bit befuddling. Berkeley didn’t wait around to see if McDonald’s would sue when it banned styrofoam sandwich boxes (and the behemoth relented – on an international scale). Berkeley didn’t wait to see if the refuse folks would sue when we started curb side recycling. Berkeley didn’t wait to see if the South African apartheid government would sue when it voted to divest in South Africa to end apartheid. Berkeley certainly didn’t wait to see if folks would sue before we adopted our climate action plan, which has implications for property owners. I support Councilmember Worthington’s perspective on this, let’s get this bag ordinance passed!   

  • Charles_Siegel

    I am not sure I understand the legal issues involved, but it seems to me that:

    — the county law will be mandatory, not voluntary

    — if Berkeley wants to pass a law that applies to more types of stores but that makes the ban voluntary for the first few years, it will have to opt out of the county law that makes the ban mandatory.

    — if Berkeley opts out of the county law, we can’t predict how long it will take before our voluntary ban becomes mandatory.  The initial city law might say that it becomes mandatory in, say, three years, but if merchants complain, the city council can delay making it mandatory indefinitely. 

    I appreciate Kriss’s work on this issue, and I back his goal, but I have to understand the implications more completely before I can back this particular proposal. 

    Most important, I cannot back any city law that has us opt out of the county law.  I could back a city law that does more than the county, but not one that does less — and certainly not one that makes the city ban voluntary when the rest of the county is mandatory.

    (On a marginally related issue, I hear that AC Transit expects Oakland and San Leandro to approve its final BRT proposal in April – but Berkeley has “opted out” of BRT and is behind other parts of Alameda County on this environmental issue.  I don’t want to see us fall  behind the rest of the county on plastic bags also.)

  • jjohannson

    I find myself appreciative of the city’s getting its ducks in a row.  Getting plastic bags banned in a coastal municipality of 150K people is good policy, but the cost of a lawsuit (and the likelihood) would have disproportionately hit the budget relative to myriad more pressing matters the city needs to address.

    So now we get this ban without having to defend its wisdom from lawsuits by rich perps trying to forestall change to their moribund business model.  I approve.

    (Now, if this ban doesn’t get passed, or is stalled, recalcitrant council members should get spanked.)

  • what would the proposed policy be regarding biodegradable “plastics” made of PLA?  I could see Berkeley Bowl, etc. using these things.  

  • Completely Serious

    Kriss’ constituents are tired of waiting . . . for Kriss to do something, ANYTHING for the direct benefit of District 7.  For a pool.  For Telegraph and People’s Park to be cleaned up and welcoming to all comers.  For online services from the COB.  For responses from Kriss’ office to constituent requests put in months and years ago.

    Kriss and Council, once again, need to focus on COB issues.  Not whether to ban plastic, or fly the Ethiopian rebel flag or support the SF circumsion ban.  Focus of COB issues, like potholes, pools and pensions.

    And in case you think I only slam Kriss, let me say,

    We’re also tired of waiting (or we will be come November) for redistricting.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “Kriss and Council, once again, need to focus on COB issues.  Not whether to ban plastic,”

    Are there no stores in COB that give out plastic bags?  Are there no people who drop those plastic bags on the streets?

    I am tired of cleaning up litter that people drop in the park next to my house, and I would be happy to have a law that reduces litter in the city, as well as contributing to solving a global environmental problem. 

    But I am not sure if Kriss’s proposal is the best way to do this.

    Why do you care about potholes but not about litter?   Both affect the quality of life of people living in this city.

  • Chris Rooney

    I hate when I see witch’s britches stuck in a tree.

  • Eschmitt

    100 cities, counties and countries have banned the use of plastic grocery bags? Surely we can find the will to follow these others (since we gave up on leading by our example seven years ago). Lets get this done now.

  • Chris

    While it is a worthy cause – I’d much rather see clean parks without graffiti and newer play structures.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t consider it an either/or proposition.  But I do notice that the plastic bag issue is relatively easy — doesn’t cost $$ to ban the bags.  After a transitional period, people will wonder that we lived any other way.  I know I have that reaction when I travel out of CA and get asked if I want to sit in the “smoking section.”  

    Potholes, pools, and pensions, however, are relatively hard because we have to make hard economic choices.  

    There’s only so much time in the Council’s calendar and I wish that more of it went to producing results on these hard problems.  That’s difficult to achieve, however, if we keep finding easy ones to occupy ourselves.

  • suzan

    Well said.  Why make things more complicated than they need to be?  Eliminating plastic bags is a worthy goal – for now let’s follow the county’s lead and evaluate later if more is necessary

  • Haselstein

    I have a feeling that the proponents are not dog owners. 

  • julie

    Kriss has done more for the pools then any other council member I know. He is also the only one who returns phone calls. This is a COB issue. Kriss worked hard on letting people know about the redistricting plans, and sent out letters. He was the only member of the council who did so. For the record, when giving the now retired city manager a raise, Kriss objected, with a valid reason– giving the city manager a raise must be done in a written evaluation form..Part of the problem, is that the disabled, elderly, and many others whose city rep. won’t respond end up emailing Kriss. I’m in another district where my city rep never responds, and I end up calling Kriss ( if it is a city issue, not district issue). One more thing, about the pool ( Willard), filling it with dirt was a huge mistake. It was costly, and I’ve checked and that is ( to my knowledge) never done. There was a plan to keep it open one more summer, brought to the council, by Kriss and either Capitelli, or Wozniak– someone who one wouldn’t would work with Kriss, and it almost passed but Linda and the Mayor vetoed it. Ed Roberts would roll over in his grave and so would Fred Lupke, and Dona Spring. 

  • Jesse Townley

    I am. We use NY Times bags and (when we’re feeling swanky) the biodegradable ones you can get at the Ecology Center.

    I was shocked when I requested paper in S.F. and the checker said, “That’s all we have.” What a nice surprise!

  • Charles_Siegel

    A more recent article says that Alameda county has passed its MANDATORY ban, and it begins in 2013.

    This article says Kriss wants his plan to be voluntary for a few years – which implies that we will still have a voluntary ban in 2013, when the rest of the council has a mandatory ban.

    I think Kriss just needs to tweak his proposal, so it does not apply to bags covered by the county law.  Then we can have the mandatory ban at the same time the rest of the county does, and we can also move forward with a broader ban.

  • Meliflaw

    Some of us are!

    In lieu of newspaper bags, I’ve bought a box of hundreds of waxed-paper sandwich bags, which work pretty well with our (smallish) dog and don’t cost that much.

  • Harry

    I’m one of Kriss Worthington’s constituents, and I’m not ‘tired of waiting’. Speak for yourself, not for people you don’t know.