Bob Cuddy reports in the SLO Tribune:
After a four-hour hearing that capped months of debate, the county’s little-known waste management board voted Wednesday evening to ban plastic shopping bags at most stores in San Luis Obispo County.
Unless blocked by litigation, which has already been threatened, or a referendum, retailers will not be permitted to distribute plastic shopping bags at most supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, warehouse stores or other shops.
The ordinance, set to take effect in October, allows retailers to distribute paper bags, but only if they charge customers 10 cents apiece.
Opponents of the ordinance immediately said they would challenge it in court. The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition said after the meeting that it would file a lawsuit within 30 days. The coalition served a “threat of litigation” to the board.
The ban was passed in an 8-5 vote by the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority.
The waste authority board includes all five members of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, one representative from each of the seven local incorporated cities and one member representing local service districts.
The Wednesday hearing culminated a months-long intensive lobbying effort by advocates on both sides of the issue that drew unprecedented attention to the hitherto obscure board.
The hearing drew 80 speakers, of whom 55 supported the ordinance. Some speakers on both sides of the issue claimed they spoke for hundreds of others who could not attend.
Proponents of the ban argued that discarded plastic has become ubiquitous and does incalculable damage.
They said many marine mammals and seabirds die from plastic ingestion or entanglement from littered bags, and Wednesday some of the dozens of people who turned out to support the ordinance illustrated their assertions with slides showing suffering wildlife and polluted shorelines.
Environmentalists also alluded to a large floating body of discarded plastic and other debris in the Pacific Ocean between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii that they call the Great Garbage Patch.
Several speakers assailed the plastics industry, which has tens of millions of dollars invested in plastic bags and has been fighting similar ordinances around the country.
The California Grocers Association endorsed the proposal, as did representatives of local landfills, who said plastic bags are a problem for them.
Opponents of the ordinance said the ban was unnecessary and that it would intrude on individual choice.
Many added that it’s an example of big, overreaching government, with one of them calling it “tyranny wrapped in environmentalism.”
Others said it would create inconvenience for shoppers.
A few critics also said it creates a new threat: food-borne or other illnesses caused by improper use of the reusable cloth bags that some shoppers would use to replace the plastic bags.
They asserted that cloth bags have been known to harbor bacteria from leaking foods or food residue, or harbor molds if they aren’t washed after each use.
Supporters of the ban pooh-poohed that latter assertion, arguing that the plastic and chemical industries were behind it. They accused opponents of fear-mongering and using the allegation as a diversion from the real intent of the ordinance, to manage waste.
A representative of the Grocers Association said its members have never had a complaint of that sort about reusable bags.
Officials with the waste authority and environmentalists who have promoted the proposal point out that millions of plastic bags are used countywide and that many are not reused.
Environmentalists have been aggressively persuading local governments to adopt similar ordinances and have succeeded in dozens of cities and towns across the United States.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban the free distribution of plastic bags.
Other cities and counties across the country have followed, including Seattle, Portland, Ore., San Jose, Los Angeles County, and Washington, D.C. Smaller cities such as Santa Monica, Long Beach, Carpinteria and Fairfax have enacted some form of ban or limitation on the use of plastic bags.
The vote came after robo-calls rang the phones of a lot of county residents over the weekend. Exactly who was behind the calls remains a mystery. Cuddy tried to find out:
Over the weekend, San Luis Obispo County residents received automated phone calls and emails asking them to oppose a controversial plastic bag ban that will be before the county’s waste management board for a vote Wednesday.
The calls came from a group that identified itself as the Environmental Safety Alliance. But the identity of those behind the alliance has been elusive to recipients of the calls, and many proponents of the bag ban believe the alliance may be tied to the plastics industry, which stands to lose millions of dollars should bag bans be upheld.
The Tribune on Monday tracked down two people involved with the calls. Both denied a connection with the plastics industry, but they were vague about exactly who is bankrolling the alliance.
Dr. Andre Feliz, who has worked in pathology and has concerns about the cloth bags that would replace the plastic bags, said he was asked to participate in the alliance campaign by “a coalition of retail interests, stores and some farming interests.”
Felix said his involvement is on the medical end — the possible spread of food-borne illnesses — not politics.
The other person publicly identified with the alliance, who introduced the automated calls by saying “This is Dr. Robert Johnson,” is indeed a doctor — of musical art, not medicine, he told The Tribune.
Johnson said he was “not at liberty to say” who is funding the alliance. He would not divulge how much the alliance spent, how many calls the group made, or who are its members.
The vote will be made by the Integrated Waste Management Authority’s board of directors. If it passes, single-use plastic bags will be outlawed countywide in most supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores and big-box stores, beginning in October.
What makes the Environmental Safety Alliance and its final-weekend phone calls remarkable is their secretive nature.
There has been considerable public interest in the proposed ordinance, and people on both sides have identified themselves at earlier meetings as they made their cases.
The Coalition of Labor, Business and Agriculture of San Luis Obispo County, for example, has spoken and written repeatedly against the ordinance. SLO Coastkeeper, an environmental organization, has been forthrightly in favor. Neither group has hidden its membership or affiliations.
Even organizations on the same side of the issue did not know who was behind the Environmental Safety Alliance and its “robo” calls. Mike Brown of COLAB said, “I don’t know what that firm is,” and John Peschong of the Republican lobbying group Meridian Pacific said he “never heard of it.”
The group does not appear to exist except on paper. The Environmental Safety Alliance cannot be reached by phone through its website and it initially ignored efforts by The Tribune to correspond via the email address the organization lists. The group’s website is www.environmentalsafetyalliance.com.
The messages the group left on residents’ phones over the weekend told people about the Wednesday meeting and warned that the ordinance will harm the environment.
On its website, it has a lead story headlined, “Banning plastic bags is good for the environment, right? Think again.” It urges those who received the phone call to contact four members of the waste management’s board: Greg O’Sullivan of Templeton, county Supervisor Jim Patterson, Arroyo Grande City Councilman Tim Brown, and Pismo Beach City Councilman Ted Ehring, whose name the group misspelled as Erring.
In a preliminary vote in November, those four voted to move the ordinance forward to the January vote. But so did San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh, as well as county Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson. It was unclear why the alliance did not suggest contacting those board members.
The key argument the alliance makes is that careless use of reusable cloth bags can lead to more food-borne illnesses. Feliz, who has expertise in the area, said he worried that if plastic bags are replaced abruptly by cloth bags, those illnesses could appear.
Asked whether he would support a gradual ban on plastic bags if the public were simultaneously educated about the proper use of cloth bags, Feliz said he would.
Patterson said the waste management board intends to talk to the public about cloth bags and food-borne illnesses, among other things, as part of its 10-month phase-in of the ordinance.
The alliance calls upset some residents, including O’Sullivan, whose unlisted phone number was made public by the group. O’Sullivan and David Vogel, a Los Osos Community Services District board member who received a call, said they spent time over the past several days trying to track down the alliance.
Vogel said he was angered that Johnson identified himself as a doctor, knowing people would think he was a medical doctor, when in fact his doctorate is in music. He said this sort of “misrepresentation is becoming more and more common.”
Others have argued that robo calls and their focus on cloth bags are an effort to divert attention from the environmental dangers of discarded plastic, which, they say, have become ubiquitous in the environment and do incalculable damage. They say that more than 1 million marine mammals and seabirds die annually from plastic ingestion or entanglement.
If passed, the ordinance would allow retailers to charge 10 cents per paper bag after plastic bags are phased out.
The waste agency’s board of directors consists of all five county supervisors, a representative from each of the county’s seven cities, and a board member who represents the county’s special districts.
The Tribune editorialized in favor of the ban:
A last-minute “robo call” campaign against a countywide plastic bag ban is an ugly attempt to bully local officials into changing their minds. They shouldn’t fall for it.
A recap: Over the weekend, many county residents received calls from a mysterious organization calling itself the Environmental Safety Alliance, warning that reusable bags can be harbingers of bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. The calls urged opposition to the ban, which comes up for afinal vote today before the county Integrated Waste Manage ment Authority board.
We don’t know which is more despicable: That the calls are preying on public fears by portraying reusable bags as public health threats — never mind that many, many people have been using them for years, with no ill effects — or that no one will own up to bankrolling the effort.
There’s been widespread speculation that the plastic bag industry is funding this effort, as it has funded others. For example, the website http://www.bagtheban.com is a “project” of Hilex Poly, a manufacturer of plastic bags and film. The site includes information on bans proposed in communities around the nation, including San Luis Obispo.
But the Environmental Safety Alliance site isn’t nearly so forthcoming; numerous efforts to contact the organization went unanswered.
Tribune writer Bob Cuddy did reach two of the “doctors” featured in the robo calls, and they declined to say who, specifically, is funding the campaign.
Cuddy also found that one of the two doctors, Robert Johnson, is not a doctor of medicine or science at all, but a doctor of musical arts. He may be qualified to opine on Mozart or Bach, but does he have any authority to warn about the health perils of reusable grocery bags?
The other doctor Cuddy contacted is a medical doctor, and did share concerns that reusable bags can pose a health threat — if they’re not properly handled.
It is certainly true that bacteria can accumulate inside the bags. A 2010 study by scientists at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University — astudy funded by the American Chemistry Council — tested 84 reusable bags used by shoppers in California and Arizona. It found bacteria on all but one of those bags.
However, consider this critique of the study from Consumer Reports:
“The researchers tested for pathogenic bacteria salmonella and listeria, but didn’t find any, nor did they find strains of E. coli that could make one sick. They only found bacteria that don’t normally cause disease, but do cause disease in people with weakened immune systems. Our food-safety experts were underwhelmed as well. ‘A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,’ says Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union.”
What’s more, the Arizona/Loma Linda study also found that washing reusable bags eliminated 99.9 percent of the bacteria. It also recommended not using grocery bags for other purposes, such as toting clothes to the gym. In other words, following a few simple, common-sense precautions can make reusable bags perfectly safe.
Implying that a ban on plastic bags will lead to massive outbreaks of illness is absurd. The county waste management board should send shady PR operatives a strong message that San Luis Obispo County won’t be swayed by such tactics. We urge the board to give final approval to the plastic bag ban today.