By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group
Environmentalists, students, a U.S. poet laureate, and a local politician turned up the pressure on Berkeley Wednesday to ban plastic carryout bags.
The group held a rally at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza backed by a giant inflatable sea turtle, one of the animals affected by plastic bags that fall into the ocean.
"This isn't a very complicated issue," said Robert Hass, the U.S. poet laureate from 1995 to 1997 and 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner.
"There were no plastic bags in the United States before 1950, we got along just fine without them, and now tons and tons of them are in the ocean. The destruction is enormous to sea birds, turtles and jelly fish."
UC Berkeley students with the California Public Interest Research Group announced they have 3,000 signatures on a petition for the Berkeley City Council to pass a plastic bag ban. Thirteen other California cities have bans in effect.
A new law being drafted by the Alameda County Waste Management Authority, which has the power to pass environmental legislation, will be unveiled in November, a spokesman said. The law will either be a mandatory ban for all cities and unincorporated areas of the county or will be optional.
Berkeley has been considering a ban for about three years but has balked because officials are afraid of litigation by plastic bag manufacturers. The companies have been successful in court against cities like Oakland on the grounds that they have not considered the environmental impacts of increased paper bag use caused by a ban.
But a recent victory at the California Supreme Court by the city of Manhattan Beach, which was sued by plastic bag backers, has made the legal environment more favorable, said Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan.
"Everyone has been waiting for the Manhattan Beach case to be decided," Cowan said. "It wasn't a magic bullet though, and it doesn't say every city can ban plastic bags without qualifications."
Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, said the city also has been waiting for the county waste management authority to finish an environmental impact report so Berkeley can use the report as legal backup if it passes a law.
"As soon as the results come from the EIR, we'll have a clearer understanding of moving forward," Sinai said.
The draft of the EIR says a ban would have no negative environmental impact. The report concludes that more truck trips would be required to transport paper bags but because paper bags are larger there is "no reason to assume the same number of paper bags would be needed."
Most bag bans around the state include a charge, say 10 cents, for each paper bag in order to deter their use and to get customers used to bringing reusable bags to stores.
Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who attended the Wednesday rally, said the city is "way too late in banning plastic bags." "We need to catch up with the other cities, so it's too late for us to be first," he said.
Worthington cited "inertia, fear of lawsuits and bureaucracy," as reasons why the city has not banned plastic bags.
Julia Ritchie, an oceans associate with Environment California, a Sacramento based environmental group, said that plastic bags harm marine life when they land in the ocean, are eaten by fish that "end up on our dinner plates," and cost California millions of dollars each year in coastal cleanup costs.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley