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San Mateo County merchants welcome plastic bag ban
March 19, 2013, 05:00 AM By Sally Schilling Daily Journal correspondent

By this summer, almost all cities in San Mateo County will have adopted a reusable bag ordinance, banning plastic bags at most retail stores.

Many small markets in San Bruno, including Los Primos Produce and Grocery, are already displaying the informational signs provided by the city to inform shoppers of the change.

"I'm actually in favor of it," said manager Elisia Guzman, who thinks customers will start bringing in their own bags once the ordinance takes effect in San Bruno on April 22, Earth Day.

The store wastes money by allowing people to request multiple plastic bags for very small items, said Guzman.

"They get one lime and three bags," she said. "[The ordinance] helps the store and helps out the environment and gets people educated."

The ordinance that is being adopted by most cities -- which is based on one that was passed by the county and enacted in unincorporated areas last year -- will require grocery stores to use paper bags made of at least 40 percent post-consumer recycled materials. Stores must charge at least 10 cents per paper bag.

"If anything, it's going to help businesses," said Chris Delios, manager of Trag's Market in San Mateo.

Charging 10 cents per paper bag will cut store costs.

"Right now, we are giving away bags," he said.

Delios has heard that, for some places that enacted reusable bag ordinances, it has taken a year for customers to adjust.

Trag's already sells some reusable bags, and is working on other alternatives to make the transition a smooth one, he said.

"There's going to be a learning curve for some," said Melvin Prasad, manager of Neelan Pacific Market in San Bruno.

If his customers bring their own bags, it will cut the store's cost for bags.

"In a way it helps the business, and it helps the environment too," he said.

Prasad knows that San Jose and Millbrae have already enacted similar ordinances. So, the change will not come as a huge shock to customers, he said.

The city has been "pretty cool" about communicating to businesses about the change, he said.

Stores that are found to be not compliant with the ordinance can be fined up to $500, according the county ordinance.

But the city has acknowledged that there will be a learning curve for customers and store owners when the ordinance takes effect, said Prasad.

"[City officials are] not going to come in and slap you with a fine the next day," he said.

Frank Jordan, owner of Besan's International Market in San Bruno, is concerned about finding a new company from where to buy bags.

"We don't know where to get paper bags," he said.

The San Mateo County Health System website does provide a list of recycled and reusable bag suppliers for retailers' reference.

The county ordinance does have a few exceptions for plastic bags for items such as produce, meat and pharmaceuticals. Some establishments are exempt, including restaurants and nonprofits such as Goodwill.

Plastic reusable?

The city of San Mateo is aiming to enact the regional ordinance June 6.

Shoppers at the Safeway at 17th Avenue and El Camino Real in San Mateo had mixed feelings about idea of getting rid of plastic bags.

"The problem is we've been doing it for forty years," said Matthew Cinquini, as he loaded plastic bags into the trunk of his car. He thinks banning plastic across the board would be more effective and less confusing than the proposed ordinance.

Cinquini has tried reusable bags, but found sanitation to be a problem.

"It just got filthy and smelly," he said.

But Ted Gonez, who carried his groceries out in his own bags, said it is easy to wash his cloth bags.

"I'm all for it," said Dan Holster, as he loaded plastic bags into his trunk. He would not mind spending a few extra bucks on reusable bags. "It's better for the landfill if we bring reusable bags."

As she loaded plastic and paper bags into her car parked in front of Trag's, Constance Sweeney explained that while she does not need plastic bags in her home, other people do.

"I'm a bit split," she said. "For certain communities [the ordinance] is not a good idea."

Plastic grocery bags are a cheap way to get rid of wet waste, she said.

Some plastic bags are recyclable, she said, as she looked at the bottom of one of her plastic bags and pointed to a recycling symbol.

She thinks plastic bags should be an option, "as long as people recycle them."

County works with business

The county is working with cities and business associations to help merchants transition, said Dean Peterson, director of Environmental Health for San Mateo County.

The county has sent toolkits to every retailer, containing fact sheets and fliers, to educate the public, he said.

Peterson acknowledged that the paper bags that will be allowed under the new ordinance are slightly more expensive than the types of bags retailers currently use.

"However, they will be able to sell that bag for a minimum of 10 cents," he said. "The retailers keep that 10 cents and, in addition, that 10 cents is not taxable."

The regional ordinance will require retailers to keep records of how many paper bags they buy and sell. This will help the county to better assess the impact of the program, said Peterson.

Keeping track of the bags will be an easy task for larger stores that use a scan-code system. And the county will assist the smaller stores that have less automated systems, he said.

"We want to make it as easy and simple for businesses as possible," he said.

For retailers stuck with plastic bags after ordinance takes effect in their city, there are a number of options.

Retailers can return the bags to the companies they purchased from, sell the bags to other counties or donate the bags to nonprofit organizations and get a tax deduction. Many nonprofits have expressed interest in taking plastic bag donations, he said.

All of the cities in the county have taken action in accordance with the county's regional plan, except Millbrae, which enacted its own ordinance last year, and Woodside, which is going in its own direction, said Peterson.

"This truly has been a regional approach," he said.

This broad implementation will help consumers and businesses to avoid confusion from city to city.

"I personally on a Saturday morning can shop in up to three cities," said Peterson.

While the vast majority of comments on the ordinance are positive, Peterson has heard a few concerns from people who reuse plastic bags for trash or dog waste.

And as an environmental health director, Peterson felt the need to explore the health concerns surrounding reusable bags. He found that washing reusable bags alleviates any sanitation issues.

Many cities will enact the ban on April 22, Earth Day.

"This Earth Day we'll be giving the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean the best present they've received in years," he said.

The following San Mateo County cities are moving toward enacting the ordinance: Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, Colma, Daly City, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Pacifica, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Mateo, South San Francisco and Woodside. Hillsborough does not have any retailers. For more information visit

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