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San Diego says no more plastic bags, passes ban

San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner and SD Surfrider Foundation held a rally for the ordinance on July 14.
San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner and SD Surfrider Foundation held a rally for the ordinance on July 14.
(Photo courtesy SD Climate Action Campaign)

The San Diego City Council approved a city-wide ban on plastic bags July 19. With the action, San Diego became the 150th jurisdiction in the state to ban plastic checkout bags. The cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas already have plastic bag bans in place.

“San Diego can now take a leadership role in limiting plastic bag use and reducing plastic pollution. As we can see from other cities, the benefits are real, and it can be done without burdening our businesses or our most vulnerable residents,” Council President Sherri Lightner said.

Lightner has been working with the Surfrider Foundation to bring this ordinance forward since 2012. She said she got fired up on this issue after sitting in her office one day and seeing a plastic bag floating outside her window — on the 10th floor.

Lighter said while some have said to wait until November when a plastic bag ban will be a statewide initiative on the ballot with Proposition 67, Lightner said the city has waited long enough — she wished they had been the first jurisdiction in California to ban plastic bags.

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“I strongly believe that now is the time to demonstrate local leadership on this issue and make a clear statement that we value our environment and believe that this sustainable action is the right thing to do to protect it,” Lightner said. “We should not leave San Diego’s fate regarding plastic bags up to the will of the voters in the rest of the state…The city’s ordinance is ready to go now and we should not delay in implementing it.”

San Diego uses 700 million plastic single-use bags a year and only 3 percent of those are recycled, according to Mario Sierra, director of the city’s environmental services department. The waste ends up in the ocean, waterways, storm drains, open space and roadsides.

The ordinance will also help to divert waste from the Miramar Landfill and save money spent by environmental services in plastic bag abatement, Lightner said.

Per the ordinance, single-use carryout plastic bags will be banned at point-of-sale retail locations with a 10 cent charge for paper bags. Exemptions will be made for restaurants, newspaper delivery and bags for transporting produce, meat, poultry, dry-cleaning or laundry.

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The ordinance will go into effect in September and there will be a six-month grace period for pharmacy and grocery retail locations and a one-year grace period for other establishments, such as convenience stores and small markets.

During public comment, many people spoke out about plastic bags’ “disastrous” impact on the environment, “clogging and choking” the city’s waterways, polluting beaches and threatening wildlife. Residents touted the use of re-usable bags while acknowledging that it will be an adjustment for consumers. Tim James, from the California Grocer Association, said that bag bans are a proven policy that are working in 149 other jurisdictions.

“Consumers respond well to ordinances like this,” James said. “Ninety-five percent of consumers choose to bring their own bags instead of purchasing them.”

Deborah Knight, representing Sierra Club San Diego, noted that the average re-usable bag has the lifespan of 700 single-use bags.

“We are thrilled that the San Diego City Council has shown leadership today to protect our ocean and beaches,” said Roger Kube, of the Surfrider Foundation, which has advocated for a ban since 2008. “By removing approximately 700 million plastic checkout bags per year from circulation, it will have a tremendous impact on the plastic pollution issue that plagues our San Diego coastline. A special thanks to Council President Sherri Lightner for her leadership on this issue.”

Councilmembers Chris Cate, Scott Sherman and Mark Kersey voted against the ordinance.

“I do three things with plastic bags: pick up after my dogs, line my trashcans at home or I recycle them,” said Kersey, who represents District 5. “If plastic bags at the grocery store are no longer available for me, I would still need them… I will just have to go buy plastic bags and I’m not sure that’s a net positive for the environment.”

If Proposition 67 passes in November, upholding the state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, a statewide ban will go into effect immediately. Kersey agreed that the city needs to lead but if the state passes a bag ban, it will supersede San Diego’s and will even take effect before theirs.

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“That’s not really leadership, that’s people seeking a political win,” Kersey said, noting that they could always revisit the ban should the November effort fail. “I don’t think it’s necessary at this point given that the state one is going to be something we all have a say on in less than four months.”


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