City Council May Have an Answer to 'Paper or Plastic?'


by Meghana Keshavan

Source: San Diego Business Journal

San Diego is on its way to joining some 80 other California cities in banning the use of plastic bags at grocery stores and retail outlets.

A San Diego ban being drafted would potentially prevent large supermarkets - as well as convenience, drug, hardware and clothing stores - from using single-use plastic bags. There could be a 10-cent charge each if paper bags are used.

Meanwhile, there's growing pressure from the California Grocers Association to make such a ban a statewide policy in hope of achieving uniformity.

Among the 80 cities across the state that already have similar restrictions in place, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and neighboring Solana Beach, there are differences in which kinds of stores are affected. An additional 50 California cities are considering similar ordinances, either banning plastic bags outright or just those used by restaurants as carryout bags.

"Rather than deal with a patchwork of many different types of ordinances, the association wants to regulate this on a state level," said Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the CAG. "It makes it difficult for retailers who have stores in multiple counties. It's really a nightmare for business."

Following San Francisco's Lead

San Francisco spearheaded the effort in 2007, banning plastic bags but allowing the use of paper.

The association opposed that measure at that time, Heylen said.

"We knew it was going to be ineffective," he said, "because it didn't do anything to discourage either retailers or consumers from using paper bags."

The problem in that situation stems from the costs of paper bag disposal - defeating some of the environmental benefits of the plastic bag ban, he said. Nevertheless, San Francisco started the ball rolling, and now several cities have adopted ordinances.

Keeping Businesses in Mind

The San Diego City Council's Rules and Economic Development Committee, which is tasked with drafting an ordinance and sending it to the City Council for review on Oct. 23, said it is keeping businesses in mind as it moves forward.

"We need to know what new regulations may cost our local businesses, who have struggled for years in a tough economy," said Councilman Mark Kersey, who is on the committee.

The committee is soliciting input from stakeholders that include "advocates, trade groups and business owners who would be impacted by this proposed ban," he said.

There are, meanwhile, cost savings a grocery store might achieve once a ban is in place. A paper bag costs 5 to 23 cents, for example, and a plastic bag typically costs about 2 to 5 cents. So a grocery store that goes through 10,000 plastic bags per day could save hundreds of dollars a day, which adds up.

Unequal Impact

But despite such baseline cost savings, some argue that a plastic bag ban could hinder business.

A recent study by The National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit conservative think tank, examined the Los Angeles-area bag ban. L.A. County began banning plastic bags in July 2011 for large stores, and banned them in small stores in January 2012. The ban only applies to stores in unincorporated Los Angeles County, although the city of Los Angeles has since adopted its own ban.

The study found that consumers were less likely to shop at stores affected by the ban, which ultimately led to layoffs in retail jobs - there was a 3.3 percent decline in sales. By contrast, stores that didn't have to comply with a plastic bag ban saw sales increase 3.4 percent and wound up hiring more staff.

Such studies are why Heylen said a state-wide policy should be put in place - using San Diego's proposed concept as a model, he said. The varying impacts on business reported in the NCPA study could be eliminated with a statewide ban on plastic and charge on paper bags, he said.

"We brainstormed the model that San Diego's adopting back in 2010 and figured it'd be a win-win for everyone," he said. "Ban of plastic, charge on paper."