“Paper or plastic … or perhaps something better for the earth?”

The question gets more involved, with some answers coming from a new statewide assessment of retail bag options. That document is expected to contribute to a wave of California cities and counties passing bag ordinances this year.

On Feb. 8, the Green Cities California coalition released a Master Environmental Assessment (MEA) on Single Use and Reusable Bags.

With the MEA saving cities research time and expense toward preparing Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) so that bag ordinances can withstand legal challenges by the plastics industry, expect “a cascade of single-use bag bans in 2010,” said Carol Misseldine, coordinator for Green Cities California.

There have been inquiries from cities elsewhere in the country, as well, Misseldine said. (click here for the MEA Web site)

The MEA is intended to accomplish the lion’s share of the research a city or county needs in preparing an EIR to justify an ordinance banning or regulating the use of plastic and unrecyclable bags by retail outlets.

“We need to orient away from single use and towards durable products,” said Dean Kubani, director of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and a steering committee member of Green Cities. “We are confident that this report will provide the documentation local governments need to adopt policies that encourage the use of reusable bags and phase out single-use bags.”

Green Cities is a coalition of cities plus one county (Marin) that share best practices in municipal sustainability policies. Its Web site has detailed how-to information for ordinances and policies on energy, waste reduction, urban design, urban nature, transportation, environmental health and water.

“We learned from the new master environmental assessment that our hunch was right,” said Charles McGlashan, county supervisor in southern Marin County. “Paper and plastic are equally bad for the environment. Our goal needs to be to move our culture toward reusable bags … Now we’ve got a belt and suspenders to make sure that we’re not going to get sued.”

The MEA, prepared for the coalition by its consultant ICF International, summarizes research reports on the environmental impacts of single-use plastic, paper, compostable and reusable bags. The MEA examines the implications of each type of bag for ozone formation, greenhouse gas emissions, litter, marine life and water consumption.

McGlashan is part of an effort to pass an ordinance simultaneously in Marin County and its constituent towns and cities to ban plastic bags and charge 15 to 25 cents per paper bag. The intent is for a united front that would minimize “perverse consumer behavior” of someone running down the street to a store that doesn’t charge for paper bags, McGlashan said.

The idea is to stem the tide of plastic bags lingering in landfills, washing down storm drains and dancing on a breeze along beaches. Among McGlashan’s constituents are surfers who are sick of hanging ten over plastic bags washing around in the breakers.

The ordinance would be good for business, McGlashan argued. Grocers now absorb the cost of relatively expensive paper bags. The law would give stores cover to charge for those bags and keep that money as a cost recovery fee, “an economic signal to the consumer,” McGlashan said.

One small grocer told him he spent an annual quarter-million dollars for paper bags, McGlashan said.

Popular opinion is behind the Marin bag ban, McGlashan said, with a key public education contribution from a group called Teens Turning Green. The group has representatives at Marin stores every third Saturday, educating citizens to remember to bring their reusable bags.

San Francisco implemented a plastic bag ban in 2007. Bag laws passed last year in Manhattan Beach and Palo Alto resulted in lawsuits by plastic bag advocacy groups, saying the cities did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to sufficiently examine environmental implications of bag choices.

Palo Alto reached a settlement with a coalition led by SaveThePlastic.com. The city agreed to forgo expansion of the ban (it now applies to seven large grocery stores in the city) to more retail outlets until the city prepares an EIR.

The city has been waiting for results from the Green Cities MEA and a San Jose EIR (expected later this year) before going forward with that expansion, which would require city council action, said Rene Eyerly, solid waste manager for Palo Alto.

The city has been promoting reusable bags for years. A survey found that 9 percent of people toted reusable bags at large grocery stores three years ago, up to 20 percent in the survey completed in February 2010, Eyerly said.

San Jose is drafting a bag ordinance, intending to make it public by May, said Skip LaCaze, Zero Waste manager for San Jose’s Environmental Services Department.

The San Jose council has directed Environmental Services to study:

  • the potential of banning both paper and plastic carryout bags at retail establishments with the exception of restaurants, take-out food establishments and nonprofit groups;
  • a potential exemption or mandatory store charge for “green” paper bags with 40 percent recycled content;

The Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission of Santa Clara County has urged cities to pass bag laws, LaCaze said, and several are making plans (including Palo Alto).

There are also plans in Sacramento, with a potential bag bill under discussion in committees of the state Legislature.

“I would love it if the state pre-empted this,” said McGlashan. “I would love it if the state would lead.”