The Santa Monica City Council delayed action late Tuesday on the drafting of an ordinance that would ban "single-use" plastic carry-out bags at all stores and restaurants within the city and would require retailers to charge a fee for paper bags.
The measure, supported by Heal the Bay, an influential environmental organization based in Santa Monica, is aimed at accelerating a shift away from highly polluting plastic bags in favor of reusable canvas and other bags.
"This is the farthest-reaching bag ban in the United States, if not the world," said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay. "It's a bold move by Santa Monica that . . . we hope serves as a model for California and beyond." Gold said Malibu, Los Angeles and Long Beach were watching Santa Monica's actions.
Officials were expected to approve the measure Tuesday, but the council tabled discussion in order to take up another budget matter.
This month, a ban on the use of non-recyclable packaging for takeout food and beverages took effect in Santa Monica. Both that ordinance and the plastic bag ordinance were recommended by Dean Kubani, the city's manager of environmental programs.
In interviews Tuesday, five of seven council members indicated that they planned to vote to draft such an ordinance. One councilman said he was undecided. Councilwoman Pam O'Connor did not attend the meeting because she was attending an environmental conference in Australia.
Californians carry home an estimated 19 billion lightweight plastic bags each year, with about 6 billion of those used in Los Angeles County. Most of the bags end up in landfills or storm drains. A 2004 study by the city of Los Angeles found that plastic bags accounted for 25% by weight, and 19% by volume, of the litter found in 30 storm drain catch basins.
The California Coastal Commission estimates that, worldwide, as much as 80% of all marine debris is plastic. Because most plastic bags do not biodegrade, they tend to break down over time into smaller pieces that are consumed by birds and marine animals.
More than 1 million sea birds, 100,000 marine mammals and countless fish die annually in the North Pacific from eating or becoming entangled in plastic bags and other debris, studies show.
Santa Monica is not the first to address the issue. San Francisco has banned non-biodegradable bags from large grocery stores and pharmacies. Los Angeles County recently adopted a voluntary program that critics derided as ineffectual.
Last month, the Chinese government announced that a ban would take effect June 1, and Australia is considering a ban.
A program in Ireland that imposed a fee for each plastic carry-out bag has reduced the use of plastic bags by 95% since March 2002.
"Voluntary programs haven't worked," Santa Monica Mayor Herb Katz said. "I think we're going to have to do the mandatory."
In a letter Tuesday to Katz, the California Grocers Assn., a Sacramento-based trade group that represents the food industry, said it opposed "local legislation aimed at undermining current recycling efforts."
The group said a statewide measure that went into effect July 1 requires certain grocery and other retailers to implement recycling programs for plastic carry-out bags and to track customers' recycling efforts. Moreover, the group said, many stores now sell reusable bags.
Gold countered the industry's objections. "Recycling your way to a solution or partial solutions is never going to get you there," he said.
A shopper at a Vons store in Santa Monica had mixed emotions about the prospect of a ban on plastic carry-out bags and the possibility that customers would have to pay for a paper bag.
"I think it's always rough to start charging people for something that used to be free," said Rafael Rivero, 37, of Santa Monica.