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Number of residents covered by a bag ban in their city or county, by the effective date of the ordinances.
For the past few years, the Bay Area has experienced a craze that has swept up municipal legislators across the region. Among city councils and county governments, it has become the it thing to join one's city or county to the list of municipalities that have banned single-use plastic shopping bags. These ordinances are all similar: grocery stores, shops, restaurants; any retail busienss operating within city or county limits are banned from distributing single-use plastic bags. Instead, shoppers must bring their own reusable tote bags or pay $0.10 for every (compostable) paper bag that they need. If you've ever been to China, Taiwan, South Africa, Hawaii, or India, you've probably noticed how single-use plastic bags have been almost universally banned. In other countries, like Italy and Germany, consumers find that they have to pay a tax for every plastic bag they wish to take.

While there are concerns about the sanitation of tote bags (people, remember that you have to wash them every so often!) and the amount of trash actually reduced by banning these bags, this diary is focused on the civic side of things. That is, if you look at the graph above (created using 2010 census data), you can see that the population covered by a plastic bag ban in the Bay Area has increased more than threefold in the past few years. Bay Area governments have been zealously pursuing these plastic bag bans. Why is this?

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Cities and Counties with plastic bag bans.
I do not claim to know the answer to the question that I offered above. But I will say this: California has always been ground zero for environmental activism in the United States, even back when it was a reliably Republican state. Democrat or Republican, our governors have always championed the sustainability cause. The culture of the state, and specifically, the state's urban core, most likely has something to do with it. In 2006, the state legislature passed, and Gov. Schwarzenegger (R) signed, the "Global Warming Solutions Act", which purports to fight climate change through a variety of sources from within the state. In 2010, the petroleum industry sponsored Proposition 23, which would have suspended the law until the state unemployment rate fell below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters (read: never). In the midst of a terrible economic climate and a Republican wave year, Californians defeated this initiative by an astounding 23 points, and with both gubernatorial candidates in opposition. All nine Bay Area counties voted against it. Clearly, Californians don't take kindly to outside corporations meddling with it sustainability initiatives.

The Bay Area itself has an interesting character. Geographically confined on one side by rolling hills (and in one place, snow-capped peaks), and the bay on the other, development has been focused within a narrow strip of land. This prime real-estate, on most accounts, is relatively close to the low-lying ecosystems that ring the bay and the hiking trails that line the Bay Area hills. Because of this geography, the San Francisco estuary is one of the most delicate and treasured habitats in California. Now don't get me wrong, development has drastically and irreversibly altered the landscape of this once pristine estuary. And of course, the presence of plastic bag litter only ruins the Bay even more. Does this unique environment give proponents of plastic bag bans additional arguments to prove their point? Or is this a case of epic bandwagonning, with legislators tripping over themselves to join the club? With the exception of the state of Hawaii, there are few other jurisdictions in the country where the suburbs have followed their major cities (like Portland, Seattle, or Austin) into banning plastic bags.

In 2007, San Francisco became the largest municipality in the United States to ban single-use plastic bags. The city passed an outright ban instead of a tax because California state law prevents the government from charging a fee for plastic bags at checkout. This ban had brought the story to the forefront of the news cycle, and groups like "Save the Plastic Bag Coalition" started bringing CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuits down on any municipality that dared to ban the plastic bag. As anyone who is intimately familiar with California law would know, CEQA has become a tool for NIMBYs and obstructionists instead of working for the benefit of the environment. Fairfax, CA was saved from a CEQA lawsuit because its ban was passed by voter initiative and therefore exempt from CEQA regulations. Palo Alto, CA was the next city to pass a bag ban in 2009, only to be forced to settle in court with the stipulation that the full law would not come into effect until a lengthy and costly Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was conducted under CEQA guidelines. This was completed in 2013.

In 2011, the California Supreme Court handed proponents of bag bans a huge victory. In Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. The City of Manhattan Beach, a unanimous Court said in no uncertain terms that the coastal city had an interest in protecting its marine life, and that "substantial evidence and common sense support the city's determination that the ordinance would have no significant environmental impact", thus freeing the city from CEQA regulations calling for an EIR. This case opened the floodgates, so to speak. Previously organizations like Save the Plastic Bag Coalition would send intimidating letters and lawsuit threats to any municipality considering taking steps to ban plastic bags. The Court, in this opinion, gave municipalities a firmer legal standing to pursue such bans, wiping the intimidation factor of the table.

Shortly after the decision, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority passed the largest plastic bag ban in terms of population covered, ever. Even though the fourteen cities and the county itself were given the option to opt out of the ordinance, none chose to do so. (Edit: Someone pointed out in the comments that I should probably mention that San Jose, the largest city in the region, implemented its ban around this time as well) Shortly before this ban came into effect in 2012, San Mateo County began working on a county-wide ban of its own. In a truly regional approach, the county worked with most of its cities (as well as six cities in neighboring Santa Clara County) to draft an ordinance that would later come into effect on Earth Day 2013. Following the previous spikes (in the chart above) of San Francisco's (2007) and Alameda County's (2012) legalization, Earth Day 2013 brought about another spike of people living in a municipality with a plastic bag ban.

In hindsight, it may have been better for the Coalition if they had just left Manhattan Beach alone. After all, they had notched previous legal victories against Oakland and Palo Alto, who either didn't appeal or settled out of court. But as they say, hindsight vision is always 20/20. As for the municipalities themselves, what was their motive for the sudden influx of new ordinances? Was it a case of pent-up popular demand for the plastic bag ban that was finally allowed by the Supreme Court? (I couldn't find any opinion polls on the subject, but due to the relatively measured response, the bag bans can't be unpopular in the Bay Area.) Or is this just a case of epic bandwaggoning, with city councilmembers tripping over themselves to endorse the latest fad? Up next: a ban on polystyrene (styrofoam) food containers? Feel free to discuss below.

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Originally posted to Edmund Xu on Fri Jul 26, 2013 at 06:07 PM PDT.

Also republished by California politics and Community Spotlight.

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