The drive to make Berkeley the first city in the country to charge a fee for grocery bags at city supermarkets hit a snag this week when results were released of a recent unscientific online survey conducted by the mayor’s office.
Out of 165 responses, 43 percent were in favor of a fee for grocery bags and 44 percent were opposed. When respondents were then given information about the environmental impacts of plastic grocery bags, their opinions shifted slightly: 46 percent approved the fee and 41 percent opposed it.
“The results show there is no clear consensus in the community about how to move forward with this,” said Cisco De Vries, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates.
De Vries said the survey did not necessarily herald any future legislation, but posed a useful question as the city works towards Alameda County’s mandate that it reduce its waste going to landfills by 75 percent by 2010.
“We want to put forward ideas about how to reduce waste overall as well as specifically cut down on the use of plastics,” De Vries said. “This is one in a series of ideas that we need to look at.”
Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, which handles Berkeley’s curbside recycling program, called for a more extensive survey. “I’m not totally convinced that is how people see this issue,” he said.
Dona Spring, the only Green Party member of the City Council, said she had been approached about introducing a grocery bag fee, but said any legislation would need a mobilized group of supporters to back it.
“It’s something that would take a lot of work,” she said. “We’d have to explain it to grocery stores.”
Currently Safeway allows customers to recycle plastic bags and Whole Foods offers customers credit for not using store bags.
While Berkeley recycles paper grocery bags, the plastic bags present a landfill problem.
According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, last year, 1.7 million tons of thin plastics were sent to state landfills—20 percent more than five years before. Of the thin plastics disposed, 147,038 tons were grocery and merchandise bags—roughly eight pounds per person.
Bourque said that plastic shopping bags slow down recycling because workers have to separate the bags from materials that the city does recycle.
Although about 5 percent of the bags nationwide are recycled to make plastic lumber, Bourque said the Ecology Center “hasn’t found a consistent good market for them.”
Bourque said that thin plastics accounts for roughly 20 percent of Berkeley’s waste, which is trucked to Livermore, Calif. at $50 a ton.
Cities in Ireland, South Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, China and Taiwan, among others, have instituted grocery bag fees, but so far no U.S. city has followed suit. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors this year rejected a 17 cent fee. A lesser fee is still being considered as the city completes studies to determine the true cost of disposing of plastic grocery bags.
Bourque said that a 15 cent grocery bag in Dublin, Ireland, has reduced the use of plastic bags by 80 percent. He’d like to see Berkeley institute a similar fee. “It needs to be at least 20 cents to make people stop and think,” he said. “If I was walking away with five bags and it cost me a buck, I would think twice about that.”