Illustration by Christine Hipp

Little by little, districts of California are banning the plastic bag — or more precisely, the single-use, plastic shopping bag.

In a unanimous decision on July 23, the city of Santa Cruz joined Marin, Monterey, San Jose, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz County and more than a dozen other state districts in banning the bag.

At their meeting deciding the ban, Santa Cruz director of public works Mark Dettle kept his presentation to the city council close to home by using locally collected data on use, littering and recycling rates of bags.

“We’ve found that about 3 percent of our waste stream is plastic bags,” Dettle said. “And 3 to 5 percent of bags are currently recycled.”

Dettle also said “picking” — where waste facility workers remove plastic bags from the line of trash — “only gets about half of the bags.”

Dettle recommended that the council approve a 10 cent charge for paper bags, the generated revenue to remain with retailers. He also encouraged the city to implement a “common sense” ban, where certain retailers, such as art supply stores, could provide plastic bags on rainy days when goods would be damaged.

The concise presentation covered the basics, but for what was left unanswered, over a dozen city proponents and a few critics came to fill.

Representing himself, former NASA physicist Richard Wieckowicz heavily warned against the overuse of paper bags as a result of the bag ban, and stressed the need for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to study the full effects of the ban.

“Paper mills are the largest polluters in the coastline,” Wickelwitz said. “When plastic bags are banned, reusable [bag use] jumps 25 percent, and paper jumps 75 percent.”

Over two dozen proponents of the ban encouraged the city council to ban the bag and to keep the “best goal” of simply banning the bag a priority, rather than focusing on details.

“We have no business serving anything to our families that comes in a material with carcinogenic compounds,” Chris Reeves of the Long Marine Lab said. “What right do we have to litter the ocean and our beautiful ecosystem with these single-use bad ideas?”

Walter Gustafson from Environment California came with 3,000 signatures to ban the bag, and encouraged the council to spend less time worrying about how much to charge for paper bags and “do the right thing.”

Beginning in April of 2013, all retailers will be required to dispense only reusable and paper bags for a 10 cent fee. The ban will not affect fresh produce bags that use plastic. The council also approved a ban on the selling of certain styrofoam products, including packing peanuts, egg cartons and beach toys, to augment the ban already in place on styrofoam take-out containers.