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Bag the Bags?

Never again to be heard in Marin: “Paper or plastic?”

Jim Wood.

It’s Tuesday around 1 p.m. and I am standing in front of four checkout lanes at Mollie Stone’s in Bon Air Center. I’ve a hunch people here will be taking their groceries home in reusable canvas bags—not paper or plastic bags. I’m wrong. Really wrong.

“Canvas bags? Once in a blue moon,” says Fran, a no-nonsense checker, “and when they do use them, it’s the men.” Fran says groceries mostly leave in paper bags. “Around here,” she says, “it’s paper bags, three to one.”

An hour later, I’m at the super-sized Safeway in Strawberry Village where the setting strikes me as conflicted. Each checkout station has chrome racks holding thick pads of single-use white plastic bags. Each station also has a placard reading: “Rebag—Reuse —Rethink.” Hanging below that are bright green reusable bags—even an insulated model for carrying home ice cream—ranging in price from 99 cents to $3.99 and each includes a windshield sticker reminding you to use it. The mix here appears to be three to two to one: paper to plastic to reusable
canvas bags.

Sound confusing? Not for long. If three Marin environmental groups (Green Sangha, EcoMom Alliance and Teens Turning Green) and two county supervisors (Susan Adams and Charles McGlashan) have their way, by year’s end we’ll all be toting canvas bags. ”We’ve been working on this for four years,” says Stuart Moody, a director for Green Sangha. “And by July, we hope plastic and paper bags will be banned throughout Marin.”

The restriction would not only affect grocery stores, but all retail operations: Nordstrom, Macy’s, Rite-Aide, as well as your neighborhood liquor, stationary and hardware stores. Trends are headed in this direction as San Francisco, San Jose, Australia, even China and, of course, Europe are all turning to reusable bags and away from single-use plastic and paper bags. Yet, Marin’s law would be the most stringent and sweeping in the nation. Moreover, as with Marin Clean Energy’s proposal to green local energy use, Marin’s ban on single use bags will not be decided by public vote; rather, county supervisors and city councils will decide for us. And, currently, it is showing every sign of being approved.

Personally, I’m all for it.

Green Sangha’s Moody captures my thoughts precisely: “Making packages that are meant to be thrown away, that are not biodegradable, and that often contain toxins, is simply not a sustainable way to live.” Moody says the United States produces 58 million tons of plastics every year, more than half of which is thrown away. You do the math; that cannot continue.

“It’s not just plastics,” says Judi Shils, founder of Teens Turning Green, a grouping of hundreds of Marin high school students working to promote B.Y.O. Bag Marin. “Paper bags contribute to deforestation, while their production and recycling consumes enormous amounts of energy.”

Many Marin groceries favor banning single-use bags—and why not? To them it’s a significant savings. Organizers claim Safeway, Andronico’s, Mollie Stone’s, Whole Foods, Paradise Foods, Good Earth, Marin Farmer’s Markets, Delano’s and Woodlands have expressed interest and, in some cases, outright support for the bag ban. Others, such as Trader Joe’s and United, have yet to comment.

While the ban would be enforced by an existing county agency with fines for repeat offenders, supervisors point out it wouldn’t go into effect for several months after approval and, even then, its true effectiveness would depend on the honor system and customer cooperation.

As for retailers, Nordstrom is said to be working on a reusable shopping bag to be marketed as an eco-positive fashion statement. Nice touch, right? Reportedly, Marin’s J. Crew and Gap stores are moving in a similar direction.

Fear not, the ban would not eliminate clear plastic produce bags; small paper bags for prescription drugs; plastic bags on newspapers; or plastic covers on dry cleaning. Also, plastic garbage and trash bags could continue to be sold in Marin.

Ideally, this will all come together in April, possibly on Earth Day, when Marin’s 11 cities and towns, plus the board of supervisors, vote to ban paper and plastic bags countywide. As one who has not used either plastic or paper bags in more than four years (and is immensely proud of it), I wholeheartedly endorse this concept. It’s long overdue. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

E-mail jwood@marinmagazine.com.

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