Monterey struggles to get handle on bag ban

Bag Ban. Plastic bags clog the Marina landfill. PHOTO BY JEFF LINDENTHALLIt’s been seven months since the single-use plastic bag ban was implemented in Monterey, but a loophole in the ban is a cause for environmentalists’ concern regarding its success.

You may have wondered why local retailers such as Big 5 Sporting Goods, The Gap and Lucky Brand Jeans continue to distribute plastic bags to customers without charging a fee, or are even allowed to do so in the first place as the City of Monterey placed a ban on single-use carryout bags on July 1, 2012.

In actuality, these stores are acting within the law. Because the bags supplied are made of plastic at least 2.25 millimeters thick, these plastic bags are deemed reusable—and therefore legal—under the City of Monterey’s ban.

According to a staff report from December 2011, the City of Monterey defines a reusable bag  “as a bag made of cloth or other machine washable fabric that has handles, or a durable plastic bag with handles that is at least 2.25 mils thick and is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse.”

Ted Terrasas, sustainability coordinator for the City of Monterey, says that this definition was implemented to create a standard among other bag bans across California.

“[Monterey] based our ban off of San Jose’s…it was easier to comply with other counties’ regulations,” Terrasas comments,  “and there would be less litigation from Save the Plastic Bag.”

What is Save the Plastic Bag? According to the coalition’s website, it is an “organization that is questioning and challenging the misinformation, myths, exaggerations and invented statistics spread by anti-plastic bag activists.”

Claiming to be in pursuit of “environmental truth,” the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has filed lawsuits against plastic bag bans in numerous cities and counties in California including Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and San Francisco.

In fact, the City of Monterey was in contact with Save the Plastic Bag in November 2011 to determine the definition of a reusable bag for the city.

But whatever Save the Plastic Bag’s motives may be, the group’s efforts may have actually helped the ban pass.

“Retailers want consistency,” Terrasas says. “A defined thickness was helpful for manufacturers and retailers with stores across California where other bans are in place.”

The ban was originally estimated to reduce plastic bag distribution by 2.8 million bags annually in Monterey. Jeff Lindenthall, public education and recycling manager for the Monterey Regional Waste Management District, says that it is too soon to tell if this prediction has held true.

“It will take a little more time before we see a decrease in plastic bags [at the Monterey Peninsula Landfill] or are able to measure it,” Lindenthall says.

Ximena Waissbluth of the Surfrider Foundation, which conducts beach clean ups around the community, comments, “We have not noticed a reduction in bags, but the ordinances went into effect just a short time ago.” She also notes that the Surfrider Foundation only conducts one clean up in Monterey a year.

Lauren Dockendorf of Save Our Shores, which also conducts beach clean ups, brings hope to the ban’s success, “Our data shows that we are finding less plastic bags on the beach then we have in the past since the bag ban went into effect.”

-LANA RICHARDS