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City Bids Bye-Bye to Single-Use Plastic Bags, Polystyrene Foam

Two unanimous Tuesday night votes by the Santa Cruz City Council effectively ban the products, which reportedly pollute waterways and have other damaging environmental and fiscal impacts.

The Santa Cruz City Council completed a "trifecta in waste reduction" during its meeting Tuesday night by passing three eco-minded ordinances, including two banning single-use plastic bags and the sale of polystyrene/plastic foam products within the city.

Although little internal discussion took place over the bans and they were approved with quick 6-0 votes—councilwoman Lynn Robinson was absent from the meeting—the public had a lot to say, largely in favor of the bans.

"Every year, the state spends $334 million on plastic bag-related costs," said Sue Vang, a representative from Californians Against Waste who trekked down from Sacramento to voice her support for both ordinances. "That's $500,000 each year unnecessarily spent by the city."

In his report to the council, Robert Nelson, superintendent of resource recovery, said the city spends about $90,000 annually processing single-use plastic bags. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated only about five percent of these bags are recycled.

According to the agenda packet, the plastic bag ban seeks the reduction of single-use bags, commonly referred to as "carry out" bags, and entails the following:

  • Affects all retail businesses that give their customers carry out bags
  • Bans the distribution of plastic carry out bags
  • Places a 10-cent charge on all paper carry out bags given to customers
  • Requires paper bags contain 40 percent post-consumer recycled content
  • Allows retailers to keep the 10-cent charge to offset the costs of implementing the program

Restaurants are exempt from the ordinance. The ban also does not apply to plastic or paper bags used to wrap products like produce, ice cream, meat or are otherwise used to protect items put into carry out bags at checkout.

The county has a similar ban on the books, staff reported, though it includes a fee increase to 25 cents per paper bag by next year. Councilman David Terrazas questioned whether a 10-cent fee would be enough to motivate retailers to provide paper alternatives.

According to the agenda report, the ban on polystyrene/plastic foam goes beyond a 2007 ordinance banning the use of such products in to-go packaging and requiring to-go containers to be biodegradable, compostable or recyclable.

While Save Our Shores noted a 50 percent decrease in foam to-go containers picked up at during beach and river cleanups after this ordinance took effect, the group reported still finding large quantities of foam pieces. Since 2007, the agenda report states, Save Our Shores has picked up 5,700 foam pieces during cleanups.

The new ordinance bans the sale of products made from polystyrene/plastic foam in all city stores. Products include:

  • Coolers
  • Cups, plates, bowls, clamshells and other products intended primarily for food service
  • Containers, including those used for shipping
  • Ice chests
  • Pool or beach toys
  • Packaging peanuts or other packaging materials made of polystyrene/plastic foam which is not wholly encapsulated or encased within a more durable materials

The purpose of the ban, as stated by the report, is to lessen the impact of litter, reduce health concerns related to the foam's toxicity and help to ensure the vitality of the marine environment.

Speaking in favor of the ban, Chris Reeves, visitor services manager for the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, posed to the council how cost-effective polystyrene packaging materials really are.

"These products far outlive their usefulness," he said. "Why create these things that have a temporary use but last in the environment forever?"

A final vote to formalize the ordinances will most likely take place during the council's July 24 meeting. The plastic bag ban will phase-in over a nine month period while the foam ban would go into effect 30 days after final adoption, according to the draft ordinance.

Mayor Don Lane said the nine-month lag time before the implementation of the plastic bag ban will allow businesses the opportunity to step forward and present alternatives to reducing waste that may not involved banning bags.

The final peg of the council's trifecta was approval of an ordinance requiring e-waste be delivered to certified recyclers.

Staff reported that, in practice, the ordinance requires anyone who collects e-waste for recycling to deliver the waste to a third party certified recycler. Recyclers will certify the waste is handled from start to finish in a social, environmentally and humanely responsible way.

Currently, the city has identified two companies, e-Stewards and R2 Solutions, as certifiable recyclers.

The ordinance has an effective date six months from now. Until then, the city will work on educating the public on which recyclers to use and inform those who wish to collect e-waste about the notification process they must complete before collecting, staff reported.

Other highlights from the meeting include:

  • The council unanimously approved the city's 2012-2013 budget. Although it has $3.7 million deficit, Marc Pimentel, city finance director, said the city can get back in the black in the next 12 months through responsible practices and continued economic growth.
  • With a 6-0 vote, the council approved a speed increase from 25 mph to 30 mph on 11 city streets. 
  • The council motioned unanimously to draft two mock-ups of measures relating to the Transient Occupancy Tax. For complete details, check out this .
Michelle Fitzsimmons July 11, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Is anyone not a fan of the ban(s)? Do you have concerns about paper bags and environmental issues associated with their production, such as waste run-off?

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