In its quest to encourage residents to embrace reusable shopping bags, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is testing the carrot before resorting to the stick.
Supervisors this week decided to hold off on exploring a ban or fee on plastic and paper shopping bags. Instead, the group approved on Tuesday a one- to two-year outreach program to educate the public on the harm wind-blown plastic bags can pose to natural lands and waterways. Many view the manufacture of both paper and plastic bags for one-time use as a poor use of resources, especially when bags pile up in landfills and are not recycled.
The head of the county's agriculture department, Greg Van Wassenhove, called the approach "a progressive program that works on people's attitudes."
According to county estimates, 51 retailers in unincorporated areas distribute 35,000 single-use bags, both paper and plastic, each year.
If public education alone does not bring this number down, supervisors will revisit the idea of an outright ban, or a fee of perhaps 25 cents for customers who do not bring their own shopping bags.
County staff will return to supervisors in April with more specifics on this campaign, including how to implement it, how long it will last, and how the county can measure its success.
Van Wassenhove said staff members are also exploring "what other carrots exist out there." Board President Liz Kniss gave an example of a store giving a nickel back to customers who bring in shopping bags for reuse.
Supervisors said this "phased approach" is better suited to the current economy.
Van Wassenhove said the county's recycling commission surveyed municipalities, and found a variety of opinions on reducing the presence of single-use bags.
"All the stakeholders agree that the single-use carrier bags are impacting the environment," he said. "But no one could agree on any one solution."
Last week, Palo Alto approved a ban on plastic bags at supermarkets that takes effect Sept. 18. Sunnyvale officials said they plan to propose an ordinance to promote reusable bags, according to Van Wassenhove's memo to supervisors on the issue.