Guest Post | The Making of a Regional Reusable Bag Ordinance

Save The Bay works with Bay Area cities and counties to create strong policies to keep plastic bags, Styrofoam, and other trash out of the bay. This Earth Day, we celebrate the implementation of plastic bag bans throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. This truly regional effort has been led by San Mateo County Health System. Dean Peterson, Director of Environmental Health, explains the long process of  extending plastic bag bans throughout the Peninsula. 

Bring your own bag
Reusable bags are back in style in San Mateo County!

Whenever I speak with folks about our efforts to enact a Reusable Bag Ordinance in San Mateo County, I am often asked,  “why can’t the County simply pass an ordinance that covers the entire County?”  To answer that requires a quick peek at how “the sausage is made”.

Unlike when the State passes legislation that permeates all corners of the State,  Cities and Counties are equal, each responsible for a distinctly defined area. Thus when a County passes an ordinance, it is only effective in the unincorporated area.  Now imagine for a moment attempting to get 18 distinct cities, each with their own charter and priorities on the same page, and it is no wonder why affecting change locally can be a challenge.

With the notion that plastics are not the enemy, but the way we use them may be, we set out to realize the dream of our world with slightly less plastic.  Since plastics entering our waterways is a regional issue, we devised a regional solution.  Many cities had talked about doing something for years, but lacked the resources to tackle the lengthy and expensive process of performing an Environmental Impact Report to justify an ordinance that would promote the use of reusable bags.  San Mateo County’s offer was simple, we would pay for and coordinate the EIR, as long as each city assisted with outreach and their councils would consider adopting the regional ordinance.  After hearing the overwhelming support from our cities, we asked ourselves “Why not invite cities in Santa Clara County to join our effort?”   While reaching across county lines is, sadly, not common place, it made sense in order to promote a true regional solution.  Much to my surprise 6 cities in Santa Clara County took us up on the offer and partnered with us.

With a solid partnership of cities, business associations, and advocates like Save the Bay – we started this epic process in September 2011.  Now imagine a montage of scoping documents, numerous public meetings, missed date nights with the wife, and a few new gray hairs – we arrive one year later with a model ordinance being passed by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.  Now imagine more city council meetings, addressing misinformation and being berated by folks that feel plastic bags are actually mentioned in the Bill of Rights (“give me convenience or give me death”)  – and we arrive at Earth Day 2013 where 20 jurisdictions in the Bay Area celebrate the best present we could possibly give to the Bay and the Ocean… a uniform and regional approach to allow for the rebirth of the reusable bag, one citizen at a time.

— Dean Peterson, Director of Environmental Health, San Mateo County