South Tahoe city council balks at plastic bag ban

Adam Jensen

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – South Lake Tahoe will likely not be among the growing number of cities hoping to reduce the usage of disposable plastic bags.

On Tuesday, the City Council declined to vote on a “Bring Your Own Bag” ordinance that would have prohibited retailers from handing out plastic bags at checkout stands, while requiring them to charge a small fee for recycled paper bags.

Each of the three council members at Tuesday’s meeting voiced concerns with the ban, which was developed by the city’s Sustainability Commission. Councilwoman Angela Swanson was not at Tuesday’s meeting.

Whether the proposal will be back in front of the council at some point is unknown.

The proposed plastic bag ban was designed to encourage people to bring reusable bags to area stores and would have shown the city’s commitment toward the environment while reducing plastic bags’ impacts on litter, storm drains, wildlife and greenhouse gas emissions, according to a presentation by Sustainability Commission members Kay Ogden and Juliana Prosperi.

Public sentiment at the meeting was split between people who felt the plastic ban was a step in the right direction for the environment and those who felt the bags would impact people with fixed incomes and take away an important convenience.

Mayor Tom Davis and Councilwoman JoAnn Conner said they were concerned about the public health ramifications of encouraging people to use reusable bags, saying the bags are hard to clean and can foster the spread of food-borne illness like those caused by E. coli.

A 2010 study by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that half of the reusable bags tested came up positive for E. coli. The authors of the study encouraged labeling reusable bags to indicate the need to clean the bags between uses. The study also urges consumers to be careful to separate raw foods from other products when using reusable bags.

The city’s proposed plastic bag ban would not have prevented grocers from providing plastic bags to separate items like meat and vegetables from other products.

Councilman Hal Cole said he supported reducing the amount of plastic used in South Lake Tahoe, but called reporting requirements in the proposal “onerous” and said he was uncomfortable trying to change people’s behavior via the fee on recycled paper bags.

The city should focus on educating people about plastic bag use and giving them incentives to change their behavior, rather than legislating the activity, Conner said.

“I’m not sure we’re where we want to be with this,” Conner said. “Let’s keep working on it.”

Whether the estimated 8 million plastic bags that are used in South Lake Tahoe each year have an impact on the local environment was questioned by Davis, who said he would support the ban if he felt there was widespread problems associated with the bags.

“I just don’t see it,” Davis said, adding he felt it is a state responsibility to look at regulating the plastic products.

More than 55 cities and five counties in California have enacted some form of plastic bag ban, according to Ogden’s and Prosperi’s presentation.

Although the draft of the ordinance proposed Tuesday indicated the ordinance would only cover food vendors and retail establishments with 50 or more employees, Prosperi said the wording contained a typo.

If approved, the ban would have covered grocery stores first, before moving to all South Lake Tahoe retail establishments, Prosperi said. Restaurants and pharmacies were not covered by the proposal.

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