California’s retailers hand out an estimated 19 billion plastic bags per year, fewer than 5 percent of which are recycled. The impacts are seen in the mounds of plastic film swelling landfills, littering highways and polluting the sea. A new state law is poised to re-route more bags into the recycling stream. And one local city may ban plastic bags outright.

As of July 1, California’s large grocery stores and pharmacies are required to take back plastic bags for recycling and make reusable bags available to customers in compliance with last year’s AB 2449. In addition, all plastic bags must be labeled, “Please return to a participating store for recycling.”

At Carmel-by-the-Sea’s Aug. 7 City Council meeting, Mayor Sue McCloud said the City is seeking guidance on the law and directed staff to investigate whether Carmel’s two small grocery stores are subject to it.

Stores are only required to participate if they have over 10,000 square feet of retail space and make at least $2 million in annual sales.

At a recent Monterey City Council meeting, Councilwoman Libby Downey gave her fellow councilmembers reusable grocery bags. She says on Aug. 21—the council’s next meeting—she’ll ask city leaders to consider a plastic bag ban at a future meeting.

Angela Brantley, Monterey’s solid waste program manager, says she’s working with other Monterey Bay area cities to study the idea of outlawing petroleum-based bags and polystyrene food containers. Under a new San Francisco law that goes into effect in the fall, for example, large grocery stores and pharmacies have the option of using biodegradable bags made of corn starch or recycled paper. Los Angeles County and the city of Santa Cruz are considering similar ordinances.

Brantley says if the council decides to consider the ban, she and her staff will give city leaders a report on the issues involved at a meeting later this year. Monterey would also host a series of workshops to encourage input from community members.

“Suggesting it to our council is the easy part,” Brantley says. “The hard part is talking to everyone who uses polystyrene and saying, ‘Hey, we want you to stop using it,’ and getting their buy-in. We want to be sure we can say these biodegradable items work, cost-wise and performance-wise.” 

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