The Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-to-0 to pass an ordinance banning plastic grocery bags from distribution within city limits and imposing a 10¢ fee on shoppers for each paper bag they are given instead. The idea behind the new ordinance — which goes into effect in two stages — is to promote the use of reusable shopping bags. Six months from now, large grocery stores and pharmacies — 10,000 square feet or bigger — will be required to implement the new regulations. There are about 20 of those in town. Six months afterward, the ordinance will extend to about 64 smaller outlets that sell food.
The measure was passed over the strenuous and at times vituperative objections of the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, whose spokesperson Stephen Joseph contended the ordinance was utterly unnecessary because there is no evidence that plastic bag litter posed a threat to Santa Barbara’s aesthetic sensibilities, let alone to its waterfront. He dismissed claims that plastic bags kill marine life, arguing that recent studies have documented the deaths of only seven fish and one bird at the hands of sea-born plastic bags, far less carnage than can be found in the frozen seafood section of any supermarket.
He lambasted as “terrible” the environmental report documenting the impact of the ban, arguing that it grossly understated the spike in paper bag consumption the ordinance would engender. “It’s the same old spin and misinformation,” he said. Joseph denounced the environmental review process because he was not sent a draft of the final report until a day after the Santa Barbara Planning Commission had approved it. (He had recently moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) He noted how two members of the Planning Commission had blasted the environmental report as “spin,” though only one voted against certification.
But Joseph ultimately proved no match for the coalition of environmental organizations — the Community Environmental Council, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, and Save the Mermaids — who’ve been lobbying the council off and on since 2007 in favor of such a ban. Their advocates argued that because plastic bags don’t dissolve in the ocean, but rather break down into tiny specks of micro-trash, they pose a threat to fish, sea birds, and sea mammals. One Surfrider Foundation representative said he had encountered a dead cormorant in just the past week with a plastic bag wrapped around its neck. Likewise, the environmental activists argued that during various beach cleanup days they sponsor, plastic bags rank in the top five or six kinds of trash left or tossed on the beach. Cigarette butts, it turns out, invariably rank first, followed by various forms of hard plastics.
Kathie King with the Community Environmental Council noted that Santa Barbara city residents use 47 million plastic bags a year. She acknowledged that many of those bags are reused multiple times — to line trash cans and pick up dog poop — but noted, “We don’t have 47 million dogs.” Likewise, she took exception to Joseph’s argument that most people use reusable bags a handful of times before throwing them out. Leaving the podium, she held her personal reusable bag high in the air, declaring, “This is my bag which I keep in my purse. I’ve used it twice a week for the past four years.” Nor did it hurt the bag ban cause any that the California Grocery Association — which represents the state’s biggest chains — has not only endorsed the proposed ban, but consistently lobbied on its behalf. Its representative, Sarah Sheehy, said that supermarkets have experienced a 94 percent drop in plastic bag ban use in communities that have enacted bans. Where Joseph claimed a Santa Monica study showed a 30 percent increase in paper bag use, Sheehy insisted paper bag consumption increased only briefly after bans were passed and then returned to pre-ban levels.
Councilmember Bendy White expressed great frustration that the State Legislature never tackled the issue and left it up to cities and counties throughout California to waste “a lot of time, energy, and creativity” devising piecemeal solutions. When the Santa Barbara ban was first proposed in 2007, only San Francisco had one. Now, 60 more cities throughout the state have adopted one. City Hall tried an educational outreach campaign to get consumers to change their habits but found only limited success. Joseph has fought bans up and down the state in court, successfully arguing that they required environmental analysis to be passed.
When the council contemplated the $66,000 price tag of such a report, the effort nearly died. But Councilmember Grant House devised a cost-sharing scheme with seven other coastal cities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and the price tag for Santa Barbara shrank dramatically. More strategically, the report could be used by any government in the two counties as the basis to enact bans of their own. To date, the City of Santa Barbara is the first to approve the EIR and the ordinance language, but the County of Santa Barbara is currently in the process of drafting a very similar measure, and activists are pushing the City of Goleta to begin the process, as well. The City of Carpinteria passed a much more restrictive measure two years ago but has since suffered legal setbacks in the courts.
Even Santa Barbara council conservatives Dale Francisco and Frank Hotchkiss — both of whom expressed keen skepticism about the ordinance and the underlying environmental report — gave their approval. Francisco said he agreed that the environmental report was deeply flawed but voted to approve it nonetheless, arguing it was no worse than most such reports. He said the regional approach saved City Hall $58,000, and because of that he voted for it. As for Councilmember House, now in the waning twilight of his council career, he took pains to “appreciate” everyone who partook of the discussion, including Joseph, of whom House said, “Hey, he’s just doing his job.”
Councilmember Cathy Murillo was far more pointed, saying Joseph had no one but himself to blame for not knowing when the Planning Commission deliberations took place. “If you didn’t do your job,” she said, “it’s not our fault.” Councilmember Randy Rowse recused himself from the deliberations, declaring that because his wife distributed free reusable cotton bags to raise awareness for a nonprofit dedicated to keeping teens clean and sober, he had a conflict of interest.