Single Use Plastic Bag Ban Comes to Davis

reusable-bagby Michelle Millet

There are many reasons why after attending UC Davis my husband and I made the decision to settle in Davis and raise our family here. Among them is because we enjoyed living in a community that shared our values-especially in terms of environmental conservation.

These values were reflected in our city council decision last November to adopt a single-use carryout bag ordinance, which is designed to decrease the distribution of single-use carry out bags.  The ordinance that will go into effect July 1 prohibits retailers from distributing single use plastic bags at the point of sale. It also requires that stores  charge a minimum of 10 cents for each paper or reusable carryout bag.

This ordinance is part of a larger plan that the city adopted in December 2011 when it passed a Zero Waste Resolution that expressed the desire of the City of Davis to conserve resources, reduce GHG emissions, and reduce waste, litter, and pollution.

Davis is one of many municipalities that have adopted similar single bag use ordinances in an attempt to reduce their use.

In 2007 San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in large grocery stores. They expanded the ban in 2012 to include all retail stores. Since that time 109 jurisdictions in California have adopted single use bags ordinances including Los Angeles, which in January of this year became the largest U.S. city to ban plastic bags.

While California leads this trend cities and counties across the country are adopting similar ordinances including those in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington.  Currently more than 20 million Americans live in communities with plastic bag bans or fees.

An ordinance similar to the one adopted in Davis may soon be enacted in all of  California. Earlier this year, after three unsuccessful attempts to regulate single-use carry-out grocery bags,  a deal was reached in the California legislature on a bill that would ban single-use plastic bags at supermarkets, liquor stores, and pharmacies state-wide by 2016.

While it seems hard to imagine a time without them, the plastic grocery bag has a relatively short history.  They were invented in 1965 and first introduced to the U.S. in 1976 as an alternative to paper.  It was not until the late 1980′s that plastic bag usage equaled that of paper bags.  By the mid 1990′s about 80% of all grocery bags were plastic and that number would hit 90% by 2012.

Plastic bags have some advantages over paper. Compared to paper grocery bags, plastic bag production uses 40 percent less energy, they generate 80 percent less solid waste, and produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions. They are also cheaper to manufacture.  But they come with problems. Due to their expansive and lightweight characteristics, single use plastic bags are easily carried by wind, and end up entangled in brush and trees, tossed along freeways, and caught on fences.

Studies have found plastic accounts for up to 90 percent of trash in California’s lakes and waterways, and single-use disposable plastic bags make up a large portion of the litter.  The state, along with its cities and counties, spend an estimated $34 million to $107 million annually to manage plastic bag litter. In 2013, Sacramento reported that its materials recovery facility shuts down six times a day to remove plastic from the machines. In 2010 the Yolo County Landfill reports spending  about $34,000 picking up plastic bags, representing about 1,815 man-hours.

In California approximately 24 billion plastic bags end up in landfills every year. While recycling is an option doing so proves to be a challenge. Few curbside recycling programs accept plastic bag because of problems with them jamming the processing machines. Though California has mandated that plastic bag recycling drop-off bins be made available at supermarkets and large retail stores it is estimated that only between 1 and 3 percent of bags are recycled.

Reports suggest that ordinances regulating single-use bags have had an effect. In San Jose, the city’s bag ban has reduced plastic bag litter 89 percent in storm drain systems, 60 percent in creeks and rivers and 59 percent in streets and neighborhoods.

Plastic bag purchases by retailers have reportedly fallen from 107 million pounds in 2008 to 62 million pounds in 2012.

As I finish the piece my husband, who for the record has consistently used canvas grocery bags for years, came home from an impromptu  grocery store trip with his purchases in yes, plastic bags.

The conversation that followed was similar to ones I’ve heard, (and engaged in), through out our community in regards to the single-use bag ordinance over the past several months.

When I asked why he opted for plastic bags, his response was,  “It’s not the plastic bags that are the problem, its the improper disposal of them.” He went on to mention that we needed plastic bags anyway to clean-up after the 70 lb labradoodle who occupies our home.

Both good points and ones I think are worth addressing. While I agree that improper disposal of plastic bag is a large part of the problem it’s not the entire one. Tremendous resources go into making these bags that are meant, by design to be used for minutes, and the fact of the matter is that, while some of these bags are being reused and recycled, a significant number of aren’t, and if they were we wouldn’t not see the environmental problems described in this piece.

While I believe that individuals through their personal choices are capable of effecting change, I also believe that some problems are significant enough that they need to addressed on a larger scale.

The problems resulting in the wide-spread use of plastic bags – from their manufacturing to their disposal – are in my opinion ones that can only be solved through the legislation of their use.

It is for this reason that I support our city council’s decisions to ban the use of plastic bags and mandate that business charge and retain a 10 cent fee for paper bags and I want to thank our businesses for efforts they have undertaken to comply with this new regulation.

Get those reusable bags ready, and when all else fails, ask yourself, do I really I need a bag for that?

About The Author

Michelle Millet is a 25-year resident of Davis. She currently serves as the Chair of the Natural Resource Commission.

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49 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    ““It’s not the plastic bags that are the problem, its the improper disposal of them.” He went on to mention that we needed plastic bags anyway to clean-up after the 70 lb labradoodle who occupies our home.”

    somehow 110 other communities manage. and it is the plastic bags themselves because of the energy and resources needed to produce billions that end up in our landfill or our streams and water ways.

    1. Michelle Millet

      His point was that we were going to use a plastic bag anyway-what did it matter if it was one he used to carry the groceries in for a few minutes or a “new” one? The same resources went into making either bag.

      The problem is that most plastic bags are not getting re-used. They are being used for minutes, then discarded.

      1. Davis Progressive

        and i would add, the problem is that there are billions of the grocery bags used, if you have to get bags for dog poop and trash, it’s still less than the overall grocery bad consumption.

        1. Michelle Millet

          Right people who buy bags for garbage or dog poop are going to buy the amount they need for that purpose and they are the only people buying them. (unlike plastic grocery bags that are distributed to everyone.)

  2. Dorte Jensen

    “He went on to mention that we needed plastic bags anyway to clean-up after the 70 lb labradoodle who occupies our home.”

    What are you doing about that then? Other plastic bags?

    1. Michelle Millet

      Good question. While I’ve been attempting to cut back on packaging, especially the plastic variety, bags do find their way into my house, which I try and reuse. Like produce bags or the plastic bag my sons favorite bread comes in etc. I keep a roll of little bags designed for the purpose of cleaning up after dogs for back-up.

        1. Davis Progressive

          and the difference is the billions of plastic bags versus the much smaller re-use. and most of the time, re-use is just twice used and they still end up in the landfill.

          1. Davis Progressive

            smaller and fewer of them. somehow 110 other communities have managed to handle their doggy poop without supb’s.

          2. Barack Palin

            David, somehow 400 other CA communties have managed to handle plastic bags without banning them.

          3. Davis Progressive

            not david, but that number will continue to shrink until the state passes its statewide ban which is coming pretty soon.

        2. Tia Will

          BP

          One certainly has the option of using very small paper bags such as those used at some stores for small bulk purchases as dog poop clean up bags this eliminating any of these plastic bags for this use from reaching the landfill. These are readily available for purchase just as small plastic bags are. All that is missing is the willingness to make this simple change.

  3. davisite4

    You can get biodegradable poop bags that are smaller than a grocery bag. I’m sure even a 70 lb labradoodle doesn’t poop enough to fill a grocery bag.

    1. Dorte Jensen

      The grocery bags fit around the cat box when it needs to be emptied. (You are supposed to remove the solid waste often and the remaining litter every week or so. Then you wash the whole box with soap and fill it with new litter.) Those small biodegradable poop bags will not fit around my cat box.

      In other words, your ideals don’t fit my reality.

      1. Tia Will

        Dorte

        “In other words, your ideals don’t fit my reality.”

        We also have a cat. We remove the solid waste waste with a small slotted scooper and place the contents in a small paper bag. A large paper bag is adequate for emptying the contents of the entire box requiring only slight angling of the cat box to pour the contents into the bag.
        This allows us to align our ideals with our reality of cat ownership.

        1. Dorte Jensen

          Thanks for the tip. I will do that if I don’t have any plastic bags. But everything comes from something: paper bags (from trees) and plastic bags (from fossil fuels). How do you decide which to sacrifice?

          1. Tia Will

            Hi Dorte

            My personal preference is to reuse as much as possible. In the case of deciding which of two items to “sacrifice” I take several factors into account. First is the item replenishable. We are able to deliberately plant more trees for use in the future although of course, we ourselves will not see them as “old growth” but our grandchildren might.
            Second, is the item of my preference biodegradable ? In this comparison this consideration applies only to paper.

          2. Barack Palin

            Dorte, the store plastic bags always fit my household trash cans almost perfectly. Now I’ll have to buy the thicker Costco type that will take even longer to degrade in the landfill and I’m sure used much more oil to make.

    2. Michelle Millet

      Maybe someone knows the answer to this but I don’t understand the point of biodegradable plastic bags for collecting dog waste if it is heading to the landfill. From what I understand these bags need exposure to light and aerobic conditions to breakdown.

      1. Tia Will

        Michelle

        I think that it least in part, the rate and thoroughness of breakdown of plastics also depends upon the predominant species of bacteria in the landfill. I suspect that I am not understanding your question since when paper enters a landfill, it breaks down relatively thoroughly and quickly thus not accumulating for as long a duration as does plastic. I must be missing something in your query.

        1. Michelle Millet

          http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/landfill7.htm

          What Happens to Trash in a Landfill?
          “Trash put in a landfill will stay there for a very long time. Inside a landfill, there is little oxygen and little moisture. Under these conditions, trash does not break down very rapidly. In fact, when old landfills have been excavated or sampled, 40-year-old newspapers have been found with easily readable print. Landfills are not designed to break down trash, merely to bury it. When a landfill closes, the site, especially the groundwater, must be monitored and maintained for up to 30 years!”

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  5. DavisBurns

    I lived in England in the early 60’s. When you went shopping you took a shopping bag or you carried everything home in your hands. Shops would wrap some things in brown paper but it only took once trying to hold a half dozen items on the walk home to reach me to remember to big a “carry bag”. Notice I said walk home. People walked to small shops, bought stuff and walked home. The closest thing we had to a mall or even a large department store was an indoor bazaar which was kind of like farmers market. I keep thinking, they managed just fine, it isn’t that hard.

    Back in the states we got paper grocery bags but the always got reused for garbage bags.

    If we just life cycle costs, plastic bags would be much more expensive because the cost would include all the money spent on clean up and disposal. If we did that with everything that got made the people who make the profit off the product would also pay for the disposal and recycling. Now that’s a progressive idea.

    If were around before the mid 80 you remember shopping without plastic. It’s not that hard.

    Doggie poop bags are usually biodegradable unlike the generic plastic bag. I have never had a single use plastic bag because I always reuse them at least once.

    However, I think 10 cents for a paper bag is outrageous. They never charged for paper of plastic before and if they are going to charge it should be only what it costs them. Retailers will make money on this and, as always, it will hurt the poor more than anyone else.

    1. Tia Will

      DavisBurns

      I completely agree. The use of a reusable shopping bags was also the case when I was in Turkey, France and Spain.
      This is an illustration of how we could certainly adopt more ecologically friendly and less expensive habits from other societies without compromising any of our own values, unless of course we value “we have always done it this way” and “convenience” above all else.

  6. DavisBurns

    I remember that putting purchases in bags at the point of purchase was something merchants pushed to avoid ‘shrinkage’. If someone tried to leave a store with a purchase held in their hands they’d be stopped because it was assumed they were shoplifting. MERCHANTS wanted purchases in bags with their names on them for two purposes. One was a signal that the item had been paid for and the other was advertising. “I shop at Big Profit! You shop there too! See what a nice bag Big Profit gives me! I’ll shop there again!” It was paid for by advertising budget. We were TRAINED to expect to use a bag provided by the merchant. If you brought a backpack or a generic shopping bag, you singled yourself out as suspicious.

    Once we were trained NOT to bring our own bag, the merchant provided bags became cheaper but they still advertised the shop they came from. They still do. Now the merchants get to charge us for the bags which, I am confident, will still be advertising their brand. We should not have to pay for paper bags.

    1. Michelle Millet

      My bet is that merchants are not thrilled about the idea of having to charge for paper either. But it will create an incentive for people to bring their own, use fewer, or just pass on the bag altogether when able.

    2. Tia Will

      DavisBurns

      “We should not have to pay for paper bags”

      I think this is a very curious comment. I was trying to think of other items that we use but that “we should not have to pay for”. I am at a loss about why we should not pay for what we use. Do you feel this way only about bags that have the company name on them ? Would you feel the same way about bags that were blank as they were when I was much younger ? Do you have other items that we use that you believe we should not have to pay for ?

      1. South of Davis

        Tia wrote:

        > I think this is a very curious comment. I was trying to think of
        > other items that we use but that “we should not have to pay for”.
        > I am at a loss about why we should not pay for what we use.

        It looks like we all better get ready for $0.10 napkins and $0.10 plastic forks…

  7. Tia Will

    “But it will create an incentive for people to bring their own, use fewer, or just pass on the bag altogether when able.”

    And this is what I see as the real benefit of this measure. It preserves peoples choices while providing a small incentive to lessen waste. If I don’t mind paying the dime for a bag, I can certainly do so. If the dime is of more importance to me, I can provide my own bag. If I were still as poor as I was at my nadir, there are a number of promotional bags that many businesses have given away or I might improvise a “shopping bag” from canvas or netting both of which I have seen used in Europe.
    If I have been paying attention as this issue was debated, I might have stored some paper bags in my trunk to use repetitively. If one is cautious not to tear them up, the paper bags will last through a number of uses depending what you are carrying in them. I have some stashed now for those occasions when I forget my cloth bags. This really is not that onerous a change to make if one is willing to make small changes to lessen our overall impact on the environment.

    1. Dorte Jensen

      Hi Tia,

      You write about the plastic bag ban in terms of incentives and choices, so here are my thoughts:

      I learned in psychology class that humans respond to rewards and punishments but learn better with the former than with the latter. With this in mind, consider what will happen to me at a Davis grocery store after July 1:

      I will want my purchases put into a plastic bag (since I reuse them, as explained before). These bags have been banned (punishment), but a paper bag is available for 10 cents (punishment), or I can use my own bag (neither reward nor punishment).

      Contrast this with what could have happened after July 1:

      I could choose from a plastic bag for 10 cents (punishment), a paper bag for 5 cents (punishment), or using my own bag for a credit of 5 cents (reward).

      In other words, the plastic bag ban is almost all about punishment, and it does not preserve freedom of choice in a realistic manner. How is this good in a civilized society?

      1. Clem Kadiddlehopper

        State officials in California asked municipalities to reduce their storm drain waste by 40%. Whatever the solution to that would end up being, it would be expensive, if not impossible. How do you prevent 40% of the waste in your storm drains, which are publicly accessible all over town? The requirement wasn’t to reduce waste to a certain level… it was to reduce it by 40% below what it already is… so if your numbers are already good, you have to make them that much better. It’s chasing after a rainbow.

        So the state gave the municipalities a loophole [mercurynews.com]: you don’t have to reduce your storm drain waste by 40% (or at all) if you institute a plastic bag ban. No questions asked. The municipalities get to avoid costly Environmental Impact Reports, and they get to tell their residents “look! We’re doing something for the environment,” so they’re passing these bans with little or no discussion. So now you have just as much waste in the storm drains, restaurants and other places that have been given a pass are still handing out plastic bags all day long, and stores that weren’t given a pass are either giving out thicker plastic bags with handles that are labelled as “reusable” or selling people paper bags for 10 cents. You don’t see people walking into stores with these thicker bags or the paper bags, so that means they’re being thrown out anyway, and they have more mass than the “banned” bags, so we really haven’t reduced waste at all… we’ve made it worse.

      2. Tia Will

        I think that we define “in a realistic manner” differently.
        What I have seen in my experience ( granted different from yours) is that much of the world considers non use of plastic bags completely “realistic”.
        I also do not consider the small sums of money that we are talking about as “punishment” but rather incentive to change. I think we just frame this differently in our minds and thus have arrived at different conclusions.

        1. Dorte Jensen

          Hi Tia,

          Thanks for responding. I alerted you on the Target post because I was not sure that you would go back and check an older article, i.e., this post. I can respond to your Target post later if you like.

          In this post, I’m talking about Davis, about the U.S, about our ideal of freedom of choice. I am hoping to focus on that because that’s where I am now.

          As for whether small sums of money are punishment, I was talking about operant conditioning. For more info, see the following link:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning

          After reading that link, I realize that I made an error in terminology: When I wrote “reward”, I should have written “reinforcement”. Reward is not the technical term, but the technical term might have clued you in that I was talking about molding behavior. Of course, molding behavior is the goal of the bag ban, which is what I object to, not the fact that I won’t have plastic bags to use for my cat box.

          Finally, I agree that your view of the world is different from mine. That’s why I asked you to read the Heinz dilemma and determine what stage of moral development you are in. You did so, for which I am grateful.

          Let me tell you why this dilemma is meaningful to me. Some twenty years ago, I read it and found that I was at a level which turns out to be different from where I am now. At that time, I didn’t see how my level or the different levels mattered. However, now that I have changed a level I see how my outlook shapes my actions in the world. It’s as if I have put on a new, better pair of glasses. I wish that others could put them on too, rather than having an old pair which makes them bump into me (and others) as they pass by.

          That is what I feel you are doing when you advocate for the bag ban. You are entitled to your views of course, but why do you support imposing them on me?

  8. tribeUSA

    Seems to me the main problem with reusable bags might be when they get dirty and moldy; and you don’t notice until you get to the store or later. Must the bag-boys at the market put their hands in a dirty moldy bag; and then transfer some of that dirt or slime that got onto their hands to the next customers clean bag?

    Though rinsing bags is easy, washing them is more difficult; rinsing and washing use a lot of water which is getting more expensive–I suppose the bags could be washed outside and the wash water used for the lawn or garden.

      1. Tia Will

        “Reusable bags can make you sick.”

        I have posted repeatedly on this incident regarding Norovirus.
        This is a particularly virulent form of virus that lasts on surfaces a long time.
        Norovirus would have been found on any type of bag, the only difference here is that a disposable bag would have been discarded and therefore not available to be cultured.
        The problem with this case was not the type of bag, it was where the bag was stored. It is never a good idea to store a bag containing food in a bathroom. That is what occurred in tipis case. The bag with food was in the bathroom when one of the girls developed explosive gastroenteritis with both vomiting and diarrhea. The adult chaperones then unwisely did not consider that the bag and its contents might have been contaminated and
        allowed them to eat its contents.
        The outcome would have been the same if the treats had been stored in open container, or if the girls had come in contact with live virus on the counter, or sink, or towels or any other object in the room or had not washed their hands thorough after using the restroom.

        Here the bag was essentially an innocent bystander that happened to get cultured because it had not been thrown away.
        The real dangers are not in cloth bags, they are on our hands, door handles and basically on every object and surface that is repetitively touched by humans. The reason that this same article keeps surfacing when this discussion comes up is because it is such a rare occurrence to have the reusable bag identified as the transmitting surface.

  9. DavisBurns

    If the paper bags have advertising on them, they should be free. If they are plain the merchants should charge approximately what they cost which I guess might be a couple of pennies. Simply having to pay SOMETHING is enough inventive for most people to bring their own. There is lots of work done on price points. Don’t know how they came up with a dime a bag. Is that for a grocery bag as well as a lunch sized bag?

    1. Clem Kadiddlehopper

      I’d rather go to the store less often. If we have to make everything about bags then reducing the number of bags used could also be accomplished by not having to purchase STUFF that was designed to break and be replaced within six to eight months. We shouldn’t just count the bags themselves but the stuff that we bring home in them. I’ve always wondered why the environmental evangelism only cares about cars, solar panels, and plastic shopping bags. Stop taxing my bags and start taxing products that just don’t last. We have the data, we know what products last a long time and we know that “modern” versions of them won’t last a long time. For god sake we know how to engineer better products.
      For example. I have a coffee grinder that I’ve been using for around 10~12 years. I consider myself lucky to have such a good quality product. A week ago it started making more noise than usual. After years of faithful service it’s finally giving out. I know that if I buy a new one–even from the same brand–it will probably last a year at best. When you consider that most of today’s products fit in that category of 1/10th the lifespan they should have…. is buying 10 times as much shit really a good idea? Crappy products should be taxed, if not illegal. Someone should tell Washington that it’s not all about cars and shopping bags.

      1. Tia Will

        Clem

        I agree that it is not optimal to have planned obsolescence.
        How about you taking the lead on this issue and I will certainly support your efforts.

  10. Mark_Murray

    LA County implemented this same policy two years ago and has been tracking the results: 254 million plastic grocery bags annually–eliminated!. Paperbags have seen about a 10% decline. Even with the 10 cent charge on paperbags, consumers in LA County are saving more than $6.3 million annually.

    If Davis gets the same results, consumers will realize a net savings of $377,249 every year. In addition there is the more than $100,000 the city and county have to pay to clean up the plastic bags that blow from garbage trucks and the landfill on Road 28. Seems to me City’s Conservation Coordinator has covered her salary for the next 4-5 years.

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