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2009 Plastic Bag Restrictions

Palo Alto's large grocery stores can no longer offer single-use plastic bags at checkout counters, as of September 18, 2009. Single-use plastic bags can still be used in produce and meat departments.  Three of Palo Alto’s grocery stores -- Country Sun, Piazza’s and Whole Foods -- voluntarily discontinued distribution of single-use plastic checkout bags well ahead of the compliance date.  Walgreens drugstores in Palo Alto have also proactively discontinued their use.

Palo Alto adopted an ordinance restricting single-use plastic bags on March 30, 2009, because of the negative environmental impacts of those bags in the natural environment. Although many entities, including the City of Palo Alto, have been trying to increase plastic bag recycling for several decades, only about 5% are, in fact, recycled. Far too many of them escape into the environment. While litter is unsightly, the impact on ecosystems and wildlife is even more important. Plastics break into smaller and smaller pieces over time as they are subjected to the forces of nature, but do not break down chemically for many years, if ever. Scientists have found an alarming build up of plastic particles in the plankton zone in the oceans in recent years. Even more alarming is the accumulation of plastic in marine animals and birds as they ingest these plastic particles.

Plastics have important uses in society, but certain uses can be restricted without adverse impacts on society. Palo Alto determined that one of those uses that can be successfully restricted is single-use checkout bags at grocery stores. Reusable bags are a better alternative because they avoid the ecosystem build-up problem, and save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as they are used over and over. Because the plastic bag industry had claimed that restricting plastic bags would lead to increased greenhouse gasses, Palo Alto analyzed this issue. The claim was that restricting plastic would lead to a switch to paper, and that would increase greenhouse gas because paper takes more energy to manufacture than plastic. However the Palo Alto analyses concluded that, even assuming the bag production figures were correct, there would be no greenhouse gas increase because there would be a sufficient switch to reusable bags to offset any switch to paper. Palo Alto’s analysis was a basis for a Mitigated Negative Declaration which was prepared to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.  An industry organization initiated litigation over this issue.  Although the Palo Alto analysis answers the substantive issue raised in the litigation, Palo Alto settled the case in order to save taxpayers the costs of a trial, and avoid consuming City Staff and City Council time. The settlement leaves the Ordinance to be enforced as adopted. It requires the City to prepare an Environmental Impact Report for any future Ordinances which restrict single-use plastic bags at other stores. Palo Alto’s existing Mitigated Negative Declaration analyzes the same issues required for an Environmental Impact Report and minimizes the need for costly additional data collection.

In the coming months Palo Alto will consider expanding the plastic bag large grocery store Ordinance to include other stores. Further public input will be obtained first.  Staff will also ensure compliance with the City’s Polystyrene Restriction Ordinance which took effect April 22, 2010.

Fact Sheet on Palo Alto Action on Bags

Final Ordinance and Environmental Documents:

 Other Information on Bags:

City Manager Reports:

Last Updated: Sep 19, 2017