Plastic bag ban injuction granted; Nancy Nadel won’t let go

So we finally have a ruling on the plastic bag lawsuit, and unsurprisingly, Judge Roesch agreed with the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling that the City needs to prepare an Environmental Impact Report before adopting the ban.

The Council passed the plastic bag ban in July, and it was set to take effect in January. In August, we got sued, and Judge Roesch heard arguments on the suit in January. The Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling’s argument is essentially that the ban will be harmful to the environment (an argument I made before the ban passed) because it will lead to increased use of paper bags, which are more environmentally unfriendly than plastic bags, and compostable plastic bags, which are no more environmentally friendly than regular plastic bags.

The Coalition’s argument is based on the following facts:

  • Paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic bags. The require nearly five times as much energy to produce as plastic bags, generate 70% more air pollutants and 50% more water pollutants than plastic bags, and require 84 times as much energy to recycle than plastic bags.
  • Compostable plastic bags, which are allowed under the ordinance, require no less energy to produce than regular plastic bags, contaminate batches of regular plastic bags if combined with them so as to make them unrecyclable, and photodegrade, rather than biodegrade, breaking down into tiny pieces that contaminate soil and water.

Nadel’s response to their argument is that we have no way of knowing if the ban will have negative environmental impacts, because “it would be impossible to predict” whether shoppers will switch to paper bags or reusable canvas bags. If you want a good indicator of whether people, without the option of plastic, will use paper or canvas bags, all you need to do is go hang out at Whole Foods for a while, where they don’t have plastic bags, and look at what people are carrying their groceries out in. I hung out for a while and counted one day, and the ratio was something like 30 to 1 using paper bags.

To prepare an Environmental Impact Report studying the ban will cost the city roughly $100,000. With the forthcoming budget shortfall, the decision should be a no-brainer. This is not a good use of the City’s resources. So what does Nancy Nadel think? From the Chronicle:

Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, a co-author of the oil-based plastic bag ordinance, said she hoped the council would order up a full environmental report so the ban can be enacted.

“Of course I’m disappointed, but we’ll proceed with the EIR and get it done,” Nadel said. “I think we can prove that it will be an improvement to the environment to ban plastic bags. Every time I walk down my street, there are at least three plastic bags stuck in the bushes. It’s really awful.”

You know, I was feeling fairly charitable the other day when I wrote about Nancy Nadel and Jean Quan voting in favor of the ill-advised parking ticket community service plan, mostly, I guess, because it didn’t pass, and I sympathized with the desire to do something good. But this is ridiculous. There is more to environmental responsibility and a commitment to sustainability than meaning well. You have to think about how things are actually going to work. Look, nobody likes reusable bags more than me. I carry a bunched up canvas bag in my purse basically all the time, in case I feel the need for an impulse purchase. I bring reusable nylon produce bags with me to the farmer’s market. When I arrived at the drugstore the other day, planning to pick up some necessities, and I realized I had forgotten my canvas bag, I put my things back and went home to get it rather than accept a paper bag. But most people do not do this. And they aren’t going to start simply because you take away one of several options for disposable bags. Being bothered by seeing them on the street is not a logical reason to ban the least environmentally harmful disposable bag option.

This City will never progress as long as the Council refuses to think about implementation. When we consider an ordinance or approve a funding request, we need to be asking serious questions about how it will work and what the real consequences will be. Nancy Nadel’s heart may be in the right place, but a City doesn’t run on good intentions, and her consistent refusal to think about practicality has held District 3 and Oakland back for far too long. Oakland needs fiscally responsible Councilmembers who understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Vote Sean Sullivan!

13 thoughts on “Plastic bag ban injuction granted; Nancy Nadel won’t let go

  1. Carrie

    “Paper bags are worse for the environment than plastic bags” is not a fact, it’s a subjective interpretation of the statistics that follow it. Here is a fact: plastic bags never biodegrade. Ever. And when they get downcycled into decking material that lasts thirty years, then get tossed in a dump, they still don’t biodegrade.

    I’m not taking a position on the ban, because there are more factors at play than paper vs plastic, but it’s a gross simplification to say that plastic is better than paper.

  2. Kent Lewandowski

    V., if you are looking for ammunition to use against Nancy, this is not it. Plastic bags, though they may not cost as much energy to produce, are harder to recycle and harder to get rid of. That and a whole lot of other reasons, is why the environmental community continues to support Nancy Nadel for City Council.
    If you want evidence check these sites:
    http://www.sierraclub.org/sustainable_consumption/articles/bags1.asp
    http://www.sierraclub.org/bags/
    Please also keep in mind we live next to the Pacific Ocean, which is becoming the world’s biggest repository of plastic bags and debris. Ever hear of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch
    If you want to see evidence for yourself, take a drive along Ocean Beach in S.F. south of Golden Gate Park and look at the hedges on the side of the road (facing the beach). They are full of plastic bags. I didn’t see much paper bags there, last time I checked …

  3. SC

    Maybe if we could get businesses to charge a nickel to a quarter for bags we could reduce use, I know I have not used a bag from Ikea since they started charging. It seems like charging for bags is inevitable anyway because if the plastic bags are banned the result is higher costs because bio and paper bags are more expensive… It would be nice if the City of Oakland could save the legal fees and take another approach to this problem.

    Just a thought

  4. Buddy Cushman

    Maybe the City could have people work off their parking tickets by walking the plastic-bag-filled streets of Oakland and pick them up. Hmmm, two problems addressed at once. And maybe far clearer and more brain cell-filled heads than mine could figure some positive way to use large bags of collected plastic bags that would not contribute to environmental trouble but actually be useful in some way. Flood dike filler? Community garden weed suppressors? I don’t know, use their non-biodegradableness to our advantage…But, to spend $100,000 dollars on an impact study when people can’t pay rent, when young people are shooting their hopes and dreams away, when there aren’t enough detox beds on the planet is: a). sheer stupidity, and b). dumb. Please, there are so many smart and creative and outside the box people all over Oakland that can come up with more practical and ethical ways to get things done, and make things better…Where have all the leaders gone? I am with V Smoothe all the way on this “issue”.

  5. Max Allstadt

    Buddy, you’re so right to put the word issue in scare quotes. If I wanted to live in a place where there were so few troubles that something like this was actually a priority, I’d move to Berkeley.

    Crime. Drugs. Poverty. Education. Race. Plastic Bags. Does anybody here remember the “one of these kids is not like the other” song that Luis used to sing on Sesame Street?

  6. V Smoothe Post author

    Carrie –

    That’s a common misconception, but it isn’t supported by evidence. According to the EPA, paper bags do not degrade at a faster rate than plastic bags in today’s landfills.

    Kent Lewandowski –

    I don’t think of it as ammunition – it’s really the other way around. The fact that Nancy Nadel busies herself with things like the plastic bag ban while ignoring the very real pathologies in her District is why she needs to go. In any case, I have been opposed to it from the beginning.

    What makes you say that plastic bags are harder to recycle? To recycle a plastic bag once requires 17 BTUs. To recycle a paper bag requires 1444 BTUs. They generate significantly higher amounts of both air and water pollutants than plastic bags.

    If the environmental community is too blind to examine actual research and evidence, and instead supports environmentally damaging policy simply because it conforms to conventional wisdom and anecdote, then I am proud not to be part of it.

    SC –

    Ireland actually was amazingly successful at reducing plastic bag consumption to near nothing through a bag tax. Unfortunately, California passed a law banning bag fees last summer, so we can’t do that here.

  7. Robert

    I thought that the whole point of an EIR was to determine the impact of a proposed action. There are negatives to both plastic and paper bags, and I suspect that neither is clearly worse for the overall impact on the environment. It is going to come down to a decision about what is most important, which is rightly a political decision – although is should be an informed political decision.

    I long for the days when the environmental mantra was “We don’t know what the impact is going to be so let’s NOT do it.” By her own words, Nancy Nadel’s mantra would appear to be “We don’t know what the impact will be, so let’s DO it.”

    Still, $100,000 for an EIR for this compared to all the other needs the city has, along with the budget deficit, seems like a poor choice for priorities.

  8. Jennifer

    I don’t see how the City can mandate the use of compostable products when they don’t offer an option of composting to all residents. I live in a multi-unit building, and it frustrates me to no end that I can’t compost my food waste and compostable containers I get wth take-out food. Unless these compostable items are actually industrially composted, they don’t degrade and instead give off methane, a really bad greenhouse gas. And if people litter plastic bags, they’ll litter compostable bags, and they act the same way.

    Electeds really need to try and understand issues before they vote just to grab headlines.

  9. Max Allstadt

    Whatever we do here, plastic bags will still blow into trees on Helen street, carried by the wind from El Cerrito or Hayward. How about we let environmental policy be set on state or national level, where small declarations can have an efficient, wide ranging effect.

    Then we can take that hundred grand and use it to hire management and leadership consultants, along with a ghostwriter, to interview the McClymonds High basketball coaches. Use the information to create a workbook and workshop program on successful leadership in high risk inner city schools. We have heroes in our midst, and we give them medals, make symbolic gestures and fail to take their heroism and wisdom to the next level. We can do better.

    Priorities, people. That’s just one way to spend that 100 grand that would do so much more good for Oakland. I bet all of you could come up with others.

  10. Buddy Cushman

    Thanks for your post Max. Who knows what kinds of opportunities there are to do things in new and exciting ways, and make things happen. Under ‘Other Oakland’ on the right side of this page there is a site named Open To Solutions, and there is a story there about a high school girl named Shanita, who strikes me as the kind of leader and hero you are talking about. Plastic bags blowing wildly through the wind, along with, maybe, the wicked witch of the west, might be a terrible thought for some. But, man, $100,000 going to work with kids sounds like a much better answer (one that might be blowing in the wind).

  11. Becks

    Jennifer – thanks for bringing up the lack of access to composting issue. I feel really terrible about all of the food waste I throw in the garbage but I don’t have another option because I live in an apartment building. If Nadel wants to do something to help the environment, maybe she should look into expanding the city’s composting program to multi-unit buildings.

  12. mark

    With all that is going on in Oakland right now, I can not believe that we are still talking about plastic bags. Is our city council so out of touch? Why is it that only cities with rising crime rates pass a plastic bag ban? Can we pass a bill that would limit all conversation at city hall to crime until the number of murders in Oakland drops below 100?

    How progressive can our city be if we all have to carry guns to protect ourselves?