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Plastic bags not gone yet, but council puts vote in motion

If the Los Altos City Council acts quickly, a ban on single-use bags for large retailers in town could take effect as early as April 22 – just in time for Earth Day.

At last week’s meeting, councilmembers struggled to define the parameters of ordinances prohibiting carryout bags and polystyrene food containers in local retail and food operations. Councilmembers outlined their concerns about environmental responsibility and the potential economic impact on local business but ultimately directed staff to prepare legislation for a future vote.

“There are better uses for petroleum for plastic bags,” said Councilwoman Jan Pepper. “It’s time for Los Altos to be on the leading edge versus the trailing end.”

Several residents at the meeting shared Pepper’s view, including Sybil Cramer, parent liaison for the Los Altos High School Parent Teacher Student Association’s Go Green Committee, and a handful of the group’s student members.

According to Cramer and the students, the committee collected hundreds of signatures in support of a bag ban on campus and successfully implemented a switch from polystyrene foam trays to a greener alternative at an additional cost of $216. Should a bag ban be implemented, the students expressed willingness to volunteer their time for outreach efforts.

“On the surface, there appears to be no reason why we shouldn’t support it,” Mayor Jarrett Fishpaw said, “but it does have a cost-of-doing-business impact.”

Councilwoman Val Carpenter echoed Fishpaw’s reservations, encouraging the council to be “aware of the consequences before we jump on this trendy bag ban.” With a mandatory ordinance requirement that would impose a 10-cent charge on consumers per bag dispensed, Carpenter expressed concern that a bag ban could put Los Altos businesses at a competitive disadvantage with online stores and their counterparts in neighboring communities without such bans.

Although Palo Alto enacted a bag ban for large supermarkets, the city has yet to institute the measure for all retail outlets and does not charge a fee for paper bags.

Mountain View enacted a reusable-bag ordinance in December and is expected to approve a plastic-bag ban and fee that would take effect by April 22.

Reflecting the momentum of area cities, the Los Altos City Council decided that a tiered phase-in for a bag ban would work best – a polystyrene food container ban and a single-use bag ban for retailers totaling more than 5,000 square feet by April 22, and a single-use bag ban on all retailers in late 2013.

Councilmembers proved reluctant to earmark $30,000 for ordinance awareness and outreach, requesting city staff to provide a more detailed plan for how taxpayer funds would be spent. Councilmembers were particularly adamant that local retail businesses be involved in the process, as retailers are best able to address ways to make a bag ban transition seamless.

The council initially discussed the possibility of a bag ban in January 2011 as an effort to reduce trash in waterways and to cut down trash loads in the city by 40 percent by July 2014, requirements of a San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board stormwater permit. After the council’s first discussions, the city decided to participate in a regional Environmental Impact Report that included a model reusable bag ordinance that cities could adopt.

According to an Environmental Impact Report issued last year, 552 million bags are used annually in the study area, which includes 24 cities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Local Girl Scout Reyna Hulett worked with GreenTown Los Altos in October to survey local shoppers and discovered that 90 percent of shoppers polled own reusable bags, but only between 20 and 30 percent of them remembered to bring the bags shopping.

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