Thu04172014

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Los Altos City Council ponders plastic-bag ban


Photo By: Town Crier file photo
Photo Town Crier File Photo

The Los Altos City Council may ban single-use plastic bags.

Los Altos residents may soon forget that familiar question, “Paper or plastic?”

At least when checking out at the bigger grocery stores in town.

As part of a multipronged plan to reduce the errant trash that ends up in the city’s creeks and the Bay by 2022, the Los Altos City Council may sometime over the next two years restrict large supermarkets from using plastic bags.

The potential “Single-Use Carryout Plastic Bag Ordinance,” as initially proposed, would apply only to the larger supermarkets, not the town’s many small establishments.

According to a city staff report, which doesn’t address paper bags, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2009 advised several Bay Area cities to adopt trash-reducing measures using a variety of methods as a condition for granting Los Altos a Municipal Regional Permit.

Larry Lind, Los Altos’ senior city engineer, presented 11 trash-control measures to councilmembers Jan. 10, including a “Polystyrene Foam Food Services Ware Ban” that would apply primarily to restaurants.

Councilmembers had the opportunity to ban plastic bags three years ago but declined. According to Assistant City Manager J. Logan, officials wanted to evaluate how other municipalities handled the water board’s mandate.

“We’re 7 square miles,” she said. “It’s difficult to regulate within our boundaries if other agencies aren’t regulating similarly.”

City leaders must finalize details of a bag ban, a process that will include public input, by Feb. 1 and must execute a plan by 2014. It’s unclear whether Los Altos will follow other cities in instituting a nominal fee for customers who want to purchase plastic bags.

Los Altos City Councilman Jarrett Fishpaw said in an interview that while the potential ban may not impact smaller stores – which comprise a large portion of Los Altos’ businesses – focusing on the big ones equates to snatching “the low-hanging fruit” and could make a big dent in the trash problem.

“Saying (it applies to) Safeway, Lucky’s, Trader Joe’s – that gets 80 percent of the carrot,” he said.

But Susan Houghton, Safeway’s director of public and government affairs, said that could create an unfair advantage.

“If they’re going to do it, that’s fine. We just want to make sure it applies to all retailers,” she told the Town Crier, adding that Safeway wants to ensure that “mom-and-pops do not have a competitive advantage or disadvantage against Safeway.”

Houghton said last week that Los Altos officials have yet to contact her on the matter, but Safeway would be “happy to work with the Los Altos community and government officials.”

The Los Altos’ Environmental Commission has been mulling a ban on polystyrene, a material common in takeout containers, according to Commissioner Joe Eyre, who added that the ban would help eradicate the “really nasty stuff.”

As for the plastic-bag ban, Eyre wants it to come quicker.

“I would like to see the (bag) ban cover all businesses and go into effect sooner,” said Eyre, speaking as a resident.

Effective Jan. 1, in an effort to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags into stores, San Jose imposed a 10-cent charge for the single-use plastic ones. Palo Alto and Sunnyvale have similar ordinances. The rule is meant to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags into stores.

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