San Jose a Trailblazer on Banning Single-Use Bags

December 6, 2010

UPDATE: The San Jose Mercury News reports that the city council approved the bag ban by a wide margin, 10-1, becoming the largest city in the nation to ban plastic bags. The measure will also require retailers to charge a fee for paper bags. It won’t go into affect until January 2012. Read the Mercury News article.

This year is ending on a promising note for a growing campaign against single-use shopping bags. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles supervisors voted to ban retailers from distributing single-use plastic bags in unincorporated parts of the county. Then on November 29, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger argued for a statewide ban of plastic bags at a press conference in Sacramento. Now the San Jose City Council is set to vote on a bag ban on December 14.

California has seen several high-profile efforts to curb single-use bags since 2007, when San Francisco became the first city in the country to outlaw disposable plastic bags. Since then, Malibu, Fairfax, and Palo Alto have passed similar bans, citing environmental concerns such as waterway pollution and wildlife endangerment.

But not every attempt has met with success. A 2008 lawsuit by the plastic bag industry overturned an ordinance in Oakland, and the state legislature defeated a plastic bag measure earlier this year.

Despite the setbacks, activists remain optimistic about the reduction of single-use bags. “It’s not unrealistic that 50 percent of the state will be covered in the next year or so by local ordinances,” says Carol Misseldine, director of Green Cities California (GCC). Her organization co-sponsored a press conference last Monday in Sacramento, along with the Clean Seas Coalition. In response to the failure of AB 1998, the bill that would have banned single-use plastic bags in California, GCC has focused its policy efforts on cities and counties. “If state legislature can’t do it, we’ll look to local jurisdictions,” explains Misseldine. “We are encouraging every jurisdiction possible to enact an ordinance.”

San Jose may help catalyze the spread of local bag legislation. If council members vote affirmatively on December 14, smaller cities throughout the state may follow suit. “I do think San Jose is going to be tremendously important,” says Leslie Tamminen, Ocean Program Director for Seventh Generation Advisors, which runs the Clean Seas Coalition. “I think it’s going to be an anchor in Northern California to get additional cities to move forward. Just the fact that they’re going through this process is having an impact. They’re blazing a path for others, and others are certainly following.”

The city has been working on its single-use bag policy for more than two years. It has held meetings of industry, environmental, and other stakeholders since February 2008, and city officials spent nine months writing an environmental impact report to assess possible outcomes and alternatives to the proposed ordinance. “San Jose went above and beyond,” says Emily Utter, a policy associate with Save the Bay. “They had a lot of community meetings, they had stakeholder conference calls that anyone could participate in, and they conducted outreach in multiple languages.”

San Jose also stands out for its stance on paper bags. Most approved bag ordinances have only banned single-use plastic bags, but the San Jose measure would place a 10 cent fee on paper bags as well. Sam Liccardo, a San Jose city council member who has strongly supported the bag ordinance, says the fee will draw attention to the issue of disposable bags at large. “The focus for us was on reducing the environmental impact of a single-use bag,” he says. “A plastic bag ban would move the environmental harm to the world of paper, and we want to avoid a game of Whac-A-Mole with environmental harm.”

Liccardo says he expects the ordinance to pass, but that’s not the end of the issue for him. “What we’re doing is working with other cities in Santa Clara County in the hope that we can get a county-wide approach,” he says. “Sunnyvale is moving in that direction, and Palo Alto already took a step. We want to create a uniformity on that level, and really allow it to grow from there.”

Read more about San Jose’s proposed bag ordinance, or learn about Save the Bay’s  campaign to reduce single-use plastic bags in the Bay Area.

About the Author

Erica Reder is a native San Franciscan. In addition to covering the environment beat at SF Public Press, she reports for Bay Nature Magazine and KPFA Radio. She holds a B.A. in history from Yale University. This story was originally published at