"There have been a few emails saying, 'This is silly, don't you have more important things to do? " said council member Ronit Bryant. "This is not silly. This is about our waterways basically being clogged by plastic bags, this is about islands of plastic bags in the ocean. There are serious costs for the city every year."
With council members Tom Means and John Inks opposed, council members voted 5-2 in favor of the ban, which is designed to encourage the use of reusable bags, beginning April 22, 2013. Grocery stores will still be able to offer paper bags, but at a minimum cost of 10 cents per bag, going up to 25 cents in two years. Restaurants and non-profit thrift stores are exempt.
"Protective" plastic bags will still be allowed for such items as meat, nuts and bolts at hardware stores, prescriptions, newspapers, dry cleaning and greeting cards, said Cynthia Palacio, senior analyst for the city's public works department.
Mountain View joined San Mateo County and several other cities in Santa Clara County to do the environmental impact report necessary to propose the ordinance, saving the city the costs of the analysis. Palo Alto, San Jose and unincorporated Santa Clara County already have similar bans and council members said it's been well received in those areas.
Council member Laura Macias noted that in San Jose, after its ban was put in place, "the number of plastic bags found in a storm drain was reduced by 89 percent" and the number of bags on streets was "reduced by 59 percent."
"I would love to see that decrease of bags in Mountain View," she said "Every time I see one, I think it's a waste."
Not everyone is happy about the ordinance. Two residents raised concern about germs spreading in grocery stores from unwashed reusable grocery bags.
Tim James, a representative of the California State Grocers Association, supported the ban and said he had not heard any concern about the spread of germs from grocers or health inspectors. The association is in contact with "health safety officers in all 58 counties and we've never heard any concern," James said.
Inks and Means opposed what they saw as a limit on personal freedom.
"As an exclusive canvas bag shopper for 20 years, I kind of resent the fact that some people are trying to tell me I don't have that choice,"Inks said, explaining his opposition.
"I wish we would be little more tolerant of people that make different choices," Means said. "I'm not going to support this. I don't think government should be in the role of one-size fits all."
Bryant, who has pushed for such an ordinance for four years, defended the need for the ordinance.
"Education doesn't work and plastic bags don't really recycle," Bryant said. "It's not been that long since we didn't use single-use plastic bags. It was only in mid 1980s that big industry decided to make more money by making plastic bags. Life can go on very well without single-use plastic bags."
"Not every detail of the proposal here seems to be me the best and most wonderful, but the critical point is a regional solution," Byrant said. "For businesses, what they want is a regional solution, the same set of guidelines, the same sets of rules. Many cities in the area are participating in the San Mateo EIR and so we have here a regional solution."
Several speakers and council members brought up the effects on wildlife, including Laura Kasa of Save Our Shores, a group which organizes 250 beach and waterway cleanups a year. Kasa noticed a dramatic decrease in plastic bags on beaches as a result of recent bans in the area. She called plastic bags, even the compostable ones, "death machines" for marine life. Council member Jac Siegel agreed, calling plastic bags "devastating."
Macias recalled seeing a bird with a plastic bag stuck in its mouth at McKelvey Park. "I was just there hanging out with my dog and saw a bird struggling. Wrapped in its beak was a plastic bag," she said. "I know it was just a matter of time before this bird was exhausted. Of course this bird had no way of getting the plastic bag out of its mouth."
Three Mountain View High School students spoke in support of the ordinance and presented a petition with 140 signatures of support from students gathered during lunch period.
"A lot of people were saying, 'Mountain View doesn't have that yet?' and they were surprised," said Abby Cunniff, president of the Mountain View High School Environmental Club. "I know we're just kids now, but plastic is forever. It never breaks down and we're going to have to deal with that someday."
The ordinance will be enforced on a complaint basis and by surprise visits to stores, Palacio said. The city has budgeted $10,000 to raise awareness about it and distribute reusable bags.