The plastic bag may be the most ubiquitous by-product of the American consumer economy, and getting rid of it at the checkout line has not been easy.
For years, opponents of plastic bags have seen their work on bans in California turned back at the state capitol and in legal challenges by the plastic bag industry.
A growing number of people think they may have hit on a better strategy, and Sonoma County, which has been studying the issue, is considering how to follow suit.
But the outline of a policy — whether it would restrict plastic bags only at grocery stores or at all retailers — and when it might be proposed, is still up in the air. That was the consensus expressed Wednesday by waste officials at a public meeting on disposable bags at Santa Rosa City Hall.
"The goal of today's forum is to let you know what's happening and hear unfiltered from the folks on the front lines of this debate," said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, who moderated the meeting.
The two-hour session focused on plastic and paper bags and included presentations by officials overseeing waste policy, disposable bag foes, and representatives from the grocery and plastic bag industries. Also on hand were officials from the City of San Francisco, the first municipality in the country to ban plastic bags, and Marin County, which took the same step last week.
The audience of more than 100 people included many local elected officials and environmental leaders.
Carol Misseldine, a coordinator with the group Green Cities California and one of the panel members, told the crowd about recent actions by local governments, including Marin County, to ban plastic bags and impose a per-bag fee, typically of 5 to 10 cents, for shoppers using paper bags. Such dual policies are picking up steam and appear to be more defensible in court than rules targeting just plastic bags, Misseldine said.
A countywide ordinance or a voter-approved initiative could put a similar policy in place locally, said Patrick Carter, program manager with the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. The agency is working with a group of 450 retailers on ideas for regulating bags.
Both plastic and paper are targets for rules because each has big environmental costs, panel members said.
Plastic clutters up the landscape and degrades more slowly and is recycled less easily, while paper produces more greenhouse gases and takes up more space in landfills.
Food vendors and plastic manufacturers acknowledged the steep environmental toll and said they anticipate wider bag restrictions.
"We believe this is a train that has left the station," said Susan Houghton, director of governmental affairs for Safeway in northern California. She said the main concern for her company is consistency — making sure regulations are similar across a region or county.
Fees on disposable bags could also speed a larger shift toward reusable totes, said Houghton and Robert Bateman, president of Roplast Industries, a plastic bag manufacturer that also makes reusable bags.
"The real problem is that shoppers need to change their behavior," Bateman said. "Unless shoppers begin to use reusable bags, we're not going to make much progress on this issue."