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For Sonoma County shoppers, the days of choosing between between paper and plastic bags at checkout lines are officially coming to an end.

On Wednesday, a long delayed move to ban carryout plastic bags at most retail outlets countywide cleared the first of two formal votes, setting in motion steps to implement the new regulation by mid-March.

Supporters hailed the progress after three years of planning, studies and setbacks, including a sticking point raised by the city of Santa Rosa last year that threatened to sink the whole proposal.

Having overcome those obstacles, some officials voiced relief more than anything else Wednesday.

"It's been a source of major frustration for me," said Sonoma City Councilman Steve Barbose, a board member on the county's Waste Management Agency, which developed the ban and will begin enforcing it Sept. 1.

"This just shows you that even something moving with glacial speed eventually gets to its destination," Barbose said.

The county is set to join more than 80 cities and counties in the state that have adopted plastic bag ordinances.

Several waste agency officials pushed to move up the September enforcement date. But agency staff said it was scheduled for later this year to give retailers time to phase out the remainder of their plastic bag supply and provide time for consumers to make the switch, preferably to reusable totes.

"We really feel that through education you can mitigate some of the potential enforcement issues," said Patrick Carter, a waste agency program manager.

The explanation came in response mostly to Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who repeatedly called for a quicker rollout before later backing off her request.

"Do we really need nine months to educate our public and our retailers about plastic bags?" Zane said.

The ordinance applies to the unincorporated county and all cities except Santa Rosa, where the city council Tuesday night voted 4-3 to opt out of the countywide plan. Instead, the city has said it will adopt an identical ban that it would enforce within its boundary.

One Santa Rosa resident voiced disappointment with that piecemeal approach. But environmentalists in the crowd nevertheless cheered the overall result, one they hope will reduce unsightly litter that harms ecosystems.

"Any opportunity and action we can take to eliminate a significant source of plastic pollution in our environment is a worthy effort," said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

A representative from the local garbage industry also welcomed the move, which he said would clean up the waste stream and enhance the value of recyclables.

"This is a great thing that the county is doing this," said Steve McCaffrey, a director with North Bay Corporation, the dominant local hauler. It will continue to recycle plastic bags, he said.

The ban would affect a wide range of outlets, including grocery, clothing, hardware and drug stores, electronics vendors, convenience and liquor stores.

It would not extend to bags used to hold meat, vegetables or prescriptions, or apply to restaurants or stand-alone delicatessens, thrift stores or other nonprofit charitable operations. It also would not restrict the sale of plastic bags for trash and other uses.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)