Santa Monica may soon join cities such as San Francisco and Oakland in banning single-use plastic carry-out bags.

The Santa Monica City Council, on February 26th, unanimously directed the city attorney to draft an ordinance banning the distribution of single-use plastic carry-out bags to customers at all stores within Santa Monica, regardless of size or type.

The city attorney was also directed to include an option in the ordinance that would allow the council to require retailers in the city to charge a fee for single-use paper bags, a recommendation by the city’s Task Force on the Environment.

The purpose of the fee would be to provide an incentive for people to bring reusable bags with them while shopping, said Dean Kubani, the city’s Environmental Programs manager.

In October, city staff was directed by the council to perform an analysis and give recommendations to develop an effective ban on plastic bags in Santa Monica, a city that uses 23 million of them a year.

Every year, Californians use 19 billion plastic bags — about 552 bags per person — in a nation that uses 100 billion, according to the nonprofit environmental group Heal the Bay.

City staff found that plastic bags are responsible for “significant negative environmental impacts” and that alternatives are easily available and already in use, Kubani said.

Across the globe, places like China have already banned plastic bags, encouraging shoppers to use cloth sacks and baskets instead to reduce environmental pollution.

Plastic bags pollute not only coastal communities like Santa Monica, but also the ocean.

According to studies, marine debris — of which plastic bags are a significant source — kill more than one million sea birds and 100,000 sea animals each year that mistake it for food or become entangled in it.

Additionally, plastic bags can take 1,000 years to decompose.

City staff determined that the most effective way to reduce the environmental impacts related to plastic bags, including biode-gradable plastic, is to ban their use in Santa Monica and promote the use of reusable carry-out bags.

They determined that paper carry-out bags should be allowed as an alternative, but should meet certain requirements to minimize environmental impacts.

City staff also recommended that the ordinance not take effect until six months after the City Council approves it, to allow stores time to make the transition.

Many businesses in Santa Monica have already submitted letters to the city urging it to ban plastic bags and implement a fee for paper bags, including Lululemon Athletica, Border Grill, Urth Cafe, Fred Segal and many of the boutiques within it, among others.

And at the City Council meeting February 26th, over a dozen people spoke in support of the city creating a plastic bag ban.

“We want to commend Santa Monica for their leadership on stopping our addiction to single-use plastic bags in the city,” said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay and chair of the city’s Task Force on the Environment. “Volunteer solutions and education have not been enough.

“You cannot recycle your way to a solution to this global marine debris crisis.

“L.A. County residents use six billion bags per year. We are long past the days of paper and plastic. The answer is reusable. Heal the Bay urges you to continue your extraordinary environmental leadership by adopting the staff recommendation in full. By doing so, you will have adopted the most comprehensive ban in our history.”

Marcus Eriksen, director of education and research for the nonprofit Algalita Marine Research Foundation — who had just returned from sea where he studied debris that accumulates in the North Pacific — said there is an extraordinary increase in plastic debris.

Ten years ago, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, dedicated to protecting marine environments, went 2,000 miles off the coast, strained the ocean surface and found that the mass of plastic was six times heavier than the mass of zooplankton.

Now, ten years later, the same study was conducted at the same location and the findings were astounding.

“We have found that the trend in ten years is a five-fold increase,” Erickson said. “There is an exponential increase in plastic debris, so we commend you on this consideration to ban plastics.”

Some Santa Monica High School students were also passionate about the issue.

“Plastic bags make up 32 percent of our landfills,” said True Shields, a senior at Santa Monica High School and president of the Heal the Bay Club there. “Billions of bags are released into our oceans each year and they take over 1,000 years to decompose.”

Still, some have concerns about the ban, including Andrew Casana, director of local government affairs for the California Restaurant Association.

He said a lot of association members “want to get away from plastic,” but he was concerned about a fee being charged for paper bags that were just being used to bag someone’s burger and French fries.

Casana was also worried about the potential cross-contamination that could result from reusable bags.

“There is some concern that possibly handing the reusable bags through the drive-through windows [of fast food restaurants] possibly can lead to cross-contamination,” Casana said.

After the public hearing, the City Council discussed the potential ban.

“Whether you come from the religious perspective or just a personal moral or ethical perspective or just a logical perspective, I think you get to the same place, which is that this is the right thing to do,” said Councilman Ken Genser, who believes there should be educational outreach.

Councilman Kevin McKeown moved the staff recommendation to direct the city attorney to draft an ordinance banning the distribution of single-use plastic carry-out bags in Santa Monica, with the additional recommendation by the Task Force on the Environment to charge a fee on single-use paper bags.

But Councilman Bob Holbrook said he thought it was a mistake to force consumers to pay for paper bags.

“I think that we’re already pushing the envelope, but we’re really going too far to require people to be charged for a bag,” Holbrook said. “I think it’s a bad move to include this at the time. I think it just ought to be free, included with the price of the groceries.”

McKeown then modified his motion to direct staff to come back with an ordinance banning plastic bags, including an option to go either way on the paper bag issue — to charge a fee or to not. He also requested further information on how paper bag fees have worked elsewhere.

“I’m thrilled we’re doing this,” said McKeown. “We’re all in this together. It’s our planet.”

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