Sorry, you’re going to have to keep dealing with those ugly plastic bags for a while now

I’m discovering a lot of people lately who seem sort of irrationally upset about the fact that Safeway is still handing out plastic bags. These people, I think, would be well served by attending a yoga class or engaging in some similarly stress relieving activity. On Tuesday, I sat behind two irate women on the 15 who were having a long discussion about how worthless OPD is, because when one of them called to report that their local Lucky was still using plastic, the police refused to come out and do anything about it. She had made the call from her cell phone in the store, and I swear, it really sounded like she expected 10 police cars with sirens blaring and maybe a SWAT team or something to rush immediately to the store and confiscate every last plastic bag in sight. Of course, not everyone wondering about the status of the plastic bag ban is mentally unstable, so for the benefit of the curious, here’s what’s going on and why you’re still seeing them around.

1. The plastic bag ban (PDF!) we passed doesn’t even go into effect until January 17th.

2. Even once it does go into effect, you will still see plastic bags around. Please don’t call 911 about it. This is because biodegradable plastic bags are permitted under the new law. The are made of some kind of starch and biodegradable polymer and are theoretically compostable, although they have their own drawbacks, including that if they get mixed in with a batch of regular plastic bags, the entire batch becomes contaminated and cannot be recycled. You will also continue to see plastic bags because they are only prohibited in stores that have over $1 million in sales annually (the 339 retailers listed on pages 8-19 of this document (PDF!). And they’re still allowed for take-out food. Also, you will continue to see them because people ignore these laws and the city makes no effort to enforce them (A year after our last environmentally conscious food packaging law went into effect, I still eat out of styrofoam at least once a week!).

3. When the 17th rolls around, we will not be enforcing the law because it is currently tied up in litigation. We’re being sued by a group called the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling (composed of plastic bag manufacturers, recyclers, and distributors), who claim that the ban violates CEQA because the City failed to document and consider the environmental impact of the decision. This is a smart strategy on the part of the plastic bag manufacturers, because, well, the City didn’t consider the environmental impact of the decision at all before they voted. From the complaint:

Despite Oakland’s ostensible attempt to aid the environment, there is ample evidence that this Ordinance will do the exact opposite. For instance, compostable bags and ordinary plastic bags are nearly indistinguishable, yet they have two very different and incompatible recycling systems. AB 2449, implemented on July 1, 2007, is a statewide mandate to require the recycling of most, if not all, ordinary plastic bags. Oakland’s Ordinance operates to frustrate the objective of AB 2449, in that, by endorsing the use of compostable plastic bags, the public will be confused about the recyclable nature of compostable bags. In fact, when the public attempts to recycle compostable bags it will contaminate the plastics recycling process, rendering the otherwise 100% of recyclable plastic bags unable to be recycled. Although Respondents modified the Ordinance to attempt to minimize its impact on the contamination of Respondents’ food scraps and composting program, Respondents’ modification did nothing to address the Ordinance’s impact on the recycling of plastic bags. As a result, the Ordinance will result in a significant amount of unusable recycled plastic that will ultimately be discarded, adding to landfills and defeating the benefit of recycling.

The Ordinance also will result in adverse environmental impacts as a result of consumers’ increased use of other types of bags, especially paper bags. There is not a sufficient supply of compostable bags available to meet the demand created by the Ordinance. As a result, there is substantial evidence in the record that retailers and consumers are likely to utilize significantly more paper bags as a substitute, which was presented to Respondents in the form of documented studies prior to their adoption of the ORdinance. Paper bag use increases greenhouse gas emissions, in that more than 60% of paper grocery bags end up in landfills, decomposing and releasing methane gas. Paper bags consume the same, or more, total non-renewable energy in their life cycle than do ordinary plastic bags. Further, according to the EPA, paper in today’s landfills does not degrade or breakdown at a substantially faster rate than plastic does, which is due in large part to the lack of water, light, and oxygen.

By comparison, plastic bags generate 69% less greenhouse gas emissions than uncomposted paper bags. Additionally, it takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than to recycle a pound of paper.

The increased use of paper bags will also have an adverse environmental impact on water resources. For instance, the manufacturing of paper bags generates 50 times more water pollutants than the manufacturing of plastic bags.

and later

The Council provides no facts or reasoning to support its conclusion that there is not even a possibility that a significant environmental effect would be caused by the Council’s approval of the Ordinance. In fact, there is substantial evidence to suggest the contrary. As outlined above, Petitioner provided comments prior to Oakland’s enactment of the Ordinance outlining the specific adverse environmental impacts of the Ordinance were implemented. Respondents ignored this and other substantial evidence in the record, and abused their discretion by arbitrarily relying upon this exemption.

The City doesn’t have a ton to say about all this, responding to the long section quoted above with simply “The City denies each and every allegation stated therein.” Of course, I’m not a CEQA expert or a judge, so we’ll just have to wait for a decision. A hearing was scheduled on January 29th before Alameda County Superior Judge Frank Roesch.

The group used the same tactic with success earlier this year, when the city of Fairfax, who also banned plastic bags (but with far less fanfare and national accolades than Oakland of SF – poor Fairfax!) ended up revising their ban to make it voluntary rather than spend an estimated $100,000 on an environmental impact report.

So that’s the story in case you were wondering. I’m not entirely sure why people are so upset about this. I mean, if you hate seeing plastic bags, I imagine that it is annoying that they’re still around, but there’s nothing stopping you from bringing your own bag anyway. Of course, I suppose there’s always the possibility that the store will refuse to let you use your own bags, which I find utterly bizarre, but apparently happens more often than you’d think, judging by the comments on this blog.