Plastic bag ban study could protect San Mateo County cities 

Cities around the county have toyed with the idea of banning plastic bags — but they tend to drop the idea as soon as the word “lawsuit” is heard from bag manufacturers.

In an effort to fend off legal challenges, several cities are now calling for the City/County Association of Governments to conduct a countywide environmental review of the project — a move they say could free each city to choose to ban the bags without worrying about repercussions.

But the countywide agency has been reluctant to endorse the idea, worrying it could take time and money away from other priorities.

In an attempt to reduce the number of plastic bags that wind up in the Bay and ocean, San Francisco, San Jose and several other California cities have banned the bags at large stores.

About two years ago, Millbrae tried to follow suit, but was told that if it didn’t conduct a full environmental review, it would be slammed with a lawsuit by companies that produce the bags, said Councilwoman Gina Papan.

With budgets shrinking, the city council couldn’t justify conducting an expensive environmental review for the project, she said. She said they were hoping a state law would be passed that would eliminate the need.

“As smaller cities we can’t afford it, but we’re all members of C/CAG,” she said. “We thought we could just have the county do it as a whole so we could be a lot more efficient.”

Papan, who is a member of C/CAG’s board, proposed the idea earlier this year, and C/CAG Executive Director Richard Napier said the association’s attorney has been exploring the idea.

“We haven’t decided if it’s something we can accommodate, given our staffing,” Napier said.  “We’re already having a tough time doing everything we have on our plate now.”

Daly City Councilman David Canepa proposed a plastic bag ban in that city earlier this year, but said the proposal also had to be tabled after the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition threatened legal action if the ban went forward. That organization, which says it has no financial relationship with the plastic-bag manufacturing industry, has filed legal challenges to similar ban attempts in Marin County, Los Angeles, San Jose and Palo Alto.

Canepa said it is unlikely the city will find the money to move forward with an EIR, and is now banking that C/CAG will find the money to conduct a countywide EIR. Regardless, he said, a plastic bag ban will eventually come about.

“We’re going to have to deal with this now or deal with this later,” he said. “Obviously there are a lot of special interests spending a lot of money to protect plastic bags.”

In the meantime, he said, Daly City is eyeing a voluntary plastic bag reduction model similar to one South San Francisco is moving forward with.

Papan said that when plastic bag bans become more common, the change won’t be as severe as some people may think.

“If you go to the grocery store, you see people bringing their own bags all the time,” she said. “I get mad at myself if I forget one.”

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Katie Worth

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