Fairfax folds on plastic bag ban
Bowing to threats of a lawsuit by the plastics industry, Fairfax officials have decided to make the town’s ban on plastic grocery bags voluntary. “Basically, we’ve gotten legal advice that we are not likely to prevail if we fight it,” said Councilman Lew Tremaine. “We don’t want to waste a bunch of people’s money, so we’re going to alter the ordinance so that it’s voluntary.”
In July, the council voted unanimously to bar grocery stores, restaurants and retail shops from using plastic bags. The ordinance, which did not require businesses to comply until Feb. 10, 2008, allowed the use of recyclable paper, compostable bags or reusable containers. Violators would have been fined $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second and $500 for any subsequent offenses. The town approved the ban over threats from the plastics industry, which argued that the ordinance amounted to an endorsement of paper bags, made from trees that consume greenhouse gases. An attorney for Emerald Packaging Co. and Fresh Pak Corp. accused Fairfax of ignoring the California Environmental Quality Act’s requirements for a full environmental assessment before enacting the ban.
“A big part of me thinks the whole concept that we have to do an EIR is patently absurd, and I’d love to see that dragon slain in a court of law,” Tremaine said. “But reality is reality.” Emerald Packaging representatives said the lawsuit would not move forward if the town follows through with plans to change the ordinance’s wording to discourage the use of plastic bags, but referred further questions to Donne Dempsey, managing director of the Progressive Bag Alliance, who said an EIR is in order.
“The increased use of paper would contribute to deforestation,” Dempsey said.
Fairfax faced similar opposition to its long-standing ban on polystyrene take-out containers. When the plastics industry threatened a lawsuit, environmental activists turned to Fairfax voters, who made the issue a ballot initiative. Tremaine said something similar is likely to happen with the bag ban.
“I think what’s going to happen is environmental activists are going to put it on the ballot. We’ve been down this road before,” Tremaine said. “The group I was working with at the time – the Fairfax and San Anselmo greens – did a petition drive and an initiative, and it passed by a ridiculously large margin.”
Andy Peri agreed.
“My understanding at this point is that we’ll be going to voters to collect the signatures necessary to get this on the ballot, probably in November 2008,” said Peri, a member of Green Sangha, the organization that initially pushed for the Fairfax ban. “Once it goes to the ballot, the plastic industry can’t play its shenanigans, making us do an assessment under CEQA law, when this ban is clearly in the interest of the environment, and in the interest of supporting clean air, clean water and wildlife.”
Because so many businesses have supported the ban, Peri said he doesn’t believe life in Fairfax will change once the council modifies its ordinance – which Tremaine said is likely to happen at its Nov. 7 meeting.