The Santa Monica City Council approved an ordinance Jan. 25 prohibiting the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags for most purposes. This will significantly affect the city's four certified farmers markets when it takes effect Sept. 1, but vendors and customers are just beginning to understand the ramifications.
Several types of bags are used at farmers markets, for varying purposes, and the ordinance treats them differently. The law's chief effect will be to ban so-called T-shirt bags, also known as carryout or carry bags, which have two handles and are generally made of flimsy plastic. These are most commonly white and opaque or translucent, though some are clear or virtually transparent. They range in size from small bags that could just fit a punnet of raspberries to larger ones that could hold a big bunch of celery. Their primary characteristic is that they have handles and so can be used for carrying anything from one apple to multiple other bags containing produce.
To protect public health, the ordinance permits the continued use of the other main type of bag found at farmers markets, which do not have handles. Produce or product bags usually come on a roll and are small to medium-sized. At grocery stores they can be very thin, but those found at farmers markets are generally made from a heavier clear plastic. Shoppers use them to gather items that would spill or commingle — such as peas, Brussels sprouts, apples — or leak, like fish and strawberries. Since these bags don't have handles, shoppers generally place them in larger bags that do, or in carts or backpacks.
Clearly, when the ban on single-use plastic carry bags takes effect, customers will be encouraged to transport their purchases with durable, reusable bags such as canvas totes, which are already sold by the Santa Monica markets and others. But they can also reuse saved plastic bags.
"We're not going to arrest or harass you if you have a handle bag that you bring yourself," says Laura Avery, Santa Monica farmers markets supervisor.
The city of Santa Monica soon will launch a "share a bag" program at secondhand stores and at the four farmers markets. The public will be encouraged to bring surplus "gently used" reusable bags and drop them off at a bin, where others who need such bags can pick them up for free.
In addition, the city will provide three kinds of multiuse bags made from recycled materials by veterans at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration: backpacks, handle bags and muslin product bags. At first they'll be given away, and then they'll be sold, Avery says.
Many vendors provide handle bags for the same use as produce bags, and those that do so will almost certainly shift to offering roll bags, which will be the only kind permitted for this purpose come September. It's not clear that this shift will be environmentally advantageous, however, since the farmers market roll bags are heavier and use more plastic.
They're also somewhat more expensive, says Nicholas Nammour of West Coast Supply, the leading purveyor of plastic bags and diverse items used at the Santa Monica and other farmers markets. It's not a huge difference. A roll of 1,000 clear plastic produce bags 10 by 5 by 19 inches in size costs $18, or 1.8 cents per bag, he said. A case of about 600 T-shirt bags, 12 by 7 by 22 inches in size, is $13, or about 2.2 cents each.
Ultimately, the hope is that customers will find reusable replacements for single-use produce bags, the roll bags, even though they will continue to be permitted. Meanwhile, Avery says, single-use handle bags "seem to be the single biggest environmental offender, winding up in the ocean and blown against fences, so that's what the city wants to ban now."
"The goal here is to move away from all of these single-use products, and toward durable reusable products," says Josephine Miller, an environmental analyst with the Santa Monica office of sustainability and the environment, who is helping direct the writing and implementation of the ordinance. "We hope that taking this first step, getting rid of the single-use carryout bags, will help change the way people think."
Some environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic produce bags are already available, such as the organic cotton produce bags that Andrea Drexelius of the French Basketeer sells at the Corona del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe farmers markets, and by mail order.
Although paper bags are not commonly used at the Santa Monica farmers markets, the city ordinance will prohibit farmers market vendors from distributing them. "Paper bags are not an environmentally viable solution," Miller said.
An exception will be made for sales of mushrooms, because these "sweat" when placed in plastic produce bags, accelerating decay. They are best kept in paper bags, and the use of 8-pound or smaller paper bags will continue to be permitted for this purpose.
Other markets have encouraged the use of biodegradable bags, but the Santa Monica ordinance does not make an exception for them because they don't always break down properly in landfills, Avery says. Netted bags such as those used for citrus, potatoes and onions will continue to be allowed.
There will be a second reading of the ordinance before the Santa Monica City Council on Feb. 8, at which time modifications may be made. A page on the city's website provides the text of the ordinance, proposed changes and other links, and will include sources for reusable bags.
At least eight jurisdictions in California, and many more around the United States and abroad, have banned or restricted single-use plastic bags in recent years. Some farmers markets have taken steps voluntarily along the same lines. The Harbor Area Farmers Markets group, for example, prohibited vendors from distributing most T-shirt bags in May 2009 and asked them to provide paper bags.
"The farmers complained a lot at first, but eventually accepted it," said Dale Whitney, the group's veteran manager. He also discourages the use of plastic roll bags but tries to be flexible: When it is raining, or when items are pointy or moist and paper bags would rip, he allows farmers to use plastic.