Cupertino becomes latest Bay Area city to crack down on plastic shopping bags


Six years after San Francisco led the nation in banning plastic bags, Cupertino is the latest city to follow suit. A new law makes it illegal for retail establishments to provide single-use plastic bags and allows the Cupertino stores to charge a dime for paper bags.

Restaurants, nonprofit shops and dry cleaners, among others, are exempt from the city’s ordinance.

On the Peninsula, Cupertino is several years behind Palo Alto, which passed a similar ordinance in 2009 and recently expanded the law to include all retail and food service establishments. San Jose’s plastic-bag ban went into effect at the start of 2012, and officials say it has helped reduce bag litter in the city’s storm drain system by nearly 90 percent.

So why was now the right time for Cupertino?

“It was really to make sure we had enough lead time that our residents and our stores could get used to it,” said Timm Borden, the city’s director of public works. “Not being the absolute leader on it helped.”

Mandates from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board also propelled Cupertino to take action. Cities in five Bay Area counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Solano and Santa Clara — are required to develop and implement programs to protect the San Francisco Estuary from “harmful pollutants like trash, bacteria, sediments, and nutrients,” according to board documents. While reducing trash benefits an area’s habitat and aesthetics, Borden said, “The main thing that catches a lot of attention in local governments right now is it is in many of our storm water permit requirements.“

Cupertino is one of 70 municipalities that discharge rainwater into San Francisco Bay. To comply with the Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit requirements, city officials must devise a plan to reduce the amount of litter that could end up in the bay. Their targets: a 40 percent reduction by 2014, 70 percent by 2017 and 100 percent by 2022.

The ban on thin carryout bags is a big step toward eliminating trash in storm drains, creeks and the bay, Borden said. For City Council member Rod Sinks, it couldn’t have come soon enough. “The writing was on the wall when we elected [in 2012] to join San Mateo’s EIR,” Sinks said, referring to the county Health Department’s Environmental Impact Review.

During the public comment period for the EIR process, some citizens expressed concern. One, Don Pettengill, wrote: “There is no pressing environmental or public health issue with plastic bags. San Mateo County should stick to fixing potholes and ensuring the safety of our food and water, rather than cater to the uninformed and misguided views of activists.”

Cupertino’s reusable bag ordinance, which took effect Oct. 1, exempts not only restaurants, nonprofit stores and dry cleaners but also customers who pay with WIC, CalFresh or other food stamp cards. Retail establishments will be able to increase the 10-cent charge on paper bags to 25 cents in 2015.

“People had plenty of fair warning,” Sinks said. “I would be delighted if the state could agree to do this statewide, but nevertheless I think it’s good that we can get the ball started.”

Bruce Olszewski, director of the Center for the Development of Recycling, a group that provides recycling information services to Santa Clara County residents and businesses, said he is pleased so many cities are taking action against plastic bags. “Bringing (reusable) bags has been something that is very easy to do … and actually makes people feel better that they’re at least doing something to cause less damage to the environment,” he said.

Palo Alto recently expanded its original disposable checkout ordinance — passed in 2009 — to include all retail, including food service establishments, hoping to increase the effectiveness of the measure. “We were seeing a lot of bags in our local creeks [and] we were seeing impacts on our wildlife,” said Julie Weiss, environmental specialist for the city of Palo Alto.

“While people can get unsettled about a change that comes up, most people have been largely really supportive of it,” Weiss added.

So far, reaction from Cupertino residents and businesses also has been positive for the most part, according to Borden. He noted the city did a lot of outreach in advance, working with grocery stores, hosting question-and-answer sessions for the public, setting up a website and posting signs in parking lots.

Clayton Palomino, lead associate at Monte Vista Market, said customers have “been okay with [the ordinance] …  a lot of people already have their own bags.” Prior to the ordinance, Palomino estimated that 60 percent of Monte Vista’s customers brought their own bags; now it’s probably closer to 90 percent, he said.

But not everyone is a fan of the ordinance. “We can’t get the plastic anymore, so why do we have to pay for paper? That’s a gimmick,” said a Cupertino resident who identified herself only by her first name, Debbie.

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