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A clerk at Co-opportunity market on Wednesday uses single-use bags on the last day before a ban takes effect. Store management said they were trying to use the rest of their stock before the ban began. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITYWIDE — It’s official. The long-awaited — or dreaded — plastic bag ban passed by the City Council in January takes effect today, whether you’re ready or not.

According to city officials, 26 million plastic bags get used each year in Santa Monica alone, contributing not only to the city’s carbon footprint, but to the bags that foul up local beaches and devastate marine life.

The ban will significantly cut down on that by cutting them out of grocery stores, and restricting them in other places, including the various Farmers’ Markets.

Josephine Miller, an employee of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment and colloquially known as the “bag lady,” is pretty confident that the last six months’ reprieve from the ban, which was supposed to take effect in March, has given retailers and their customers time to prepare themselves for enforcement.

Miller has been busy making it happen. She’s run around to hundreds of impacted businesses giving presentations, prepping owners, bagging clerks, creating fliers (three) and calling the 108 most-affected stores to give them updates on the rules and loopholes of the ban.

It is a surprisingly complex process.

The ordinance splits retailers into four “tiers,” and applies different rules to different tiers.

The most obvious changes will take place at the grocery store and mini-mart level, where checkers will no longer be asking “Paper or plastic?” but rather “Did you bring your own bags today?”

No, really. The OSE has produced guides for owners and employees on what to say and how to deal with customers.

If there’s no reusable bag available, customers will buy a 10-cent paper bag comprised of 40 percent post-consumer recycled paper with handles.

Plastic bags for produce and meats will still be available, Miller said, just not “T-shirt” bags at point-of-sale.

“None of this is ideal,” she admitted, speaking of the complications and exceptions in the ordinance, “which is why you have to go to reusable.”

Bring your own bag, avoid a headache. That’s the message Santa Monica is trying to send.

Retailers are jumping on board, some more enthusiastically than others.

Sean McGuire, owner of The Farms at 2030 Montana Ave., put up posters in the front of his store reminding people to bring their own bags.

Actually, he’s featured on the City Hall-produced poster.

Most of his customers are aware of the coming ban, he said.

“Most are well-educated and not living in a bubble,” McGuire said.

An informal survey revealed that half of the people who visited his store before 4 p.m. remembered to bring their reusables, and 60 percent remembered after that hour.

“The earlier ones are there for lunch time, and aren’t prepared,” he said. “After that, they’re there to buy dinner, which is predetermined.”

If customers forget the bags — “90 percent of them leave the bags in the back of their cars,” he said — that’s no problem either. Just give your checker the key to the car and they’ll go grab your bags for you.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing across the board.

McGuire served one customer in the past week who, when informed of the ban, promptly threw the bag back at him.

Still, he believes that the ban will be a boon to small businesses, who might save some money if customers convert to reusable bags.

Although the City Hall-approved paper bags are more expensive than plastic — 13 cents per rather than half a cent — the 10-cent charge stays with the business and helps counterbalance that.

It’s just a matter of programming a new key into the cash register, a task McGuire successfully completed in under 15 seconds.

City Hall has a number of other requirements that weigh heavier on the small business owner, including a twice-a-year reporting condition to help track the progress of the ban.

While small retailers may have some difficulty transitioning to some of the requirements of the ban, larger stores with more infrastructure behind them are a different story.

Wayne Nogosek, a manager at Whole Foods on Wilshire Boulevard near 20th Street, hasn’t used a plastic bag in his store since Earth Day 2008.

That change took place across all of the Whole Foods chain, removing 150 million single-use plastic bags from the waste stream.

Although the ban isn’t too much of a culture change for his store, Nogosek is helping to incentivize the switch by not only charging for each paper bag used, but giving 10 cents for every reusable bag that comes into the store.

There hasn’t been too much resistance.

“In this area, everyone understands how important this is,” Nogosek said.

The store is still developing a plan for what to do with the revenue derived from bag use. An option to donate it to the Whole Planet nonprofit has been put on the table, but corporate hasn’t yet decided, Nogosek said.

The ban puts Santa Monica with a handful of other cities that have taken the step to reduce the number of bags that end up in landfills and water ways.

Santa Monica’s own Assemblywoman Julia Brownley has been pushing for a ban statewide.

“I look forward to the day when plastic bags stop swirling around our feet in the waves, and no longer mar our beaches or kill marine life,” Brownley said.

She also took a shot at the American Chemistry Council, a pro-plastic organization that took aim at plastic bag bans around the state.

The ACC objects to such bans because they kill jobs in California, which has some plastics manufacturing facilities, said Shari Jackson, director of Progressive Bag Affiliates.

“Obviously we don’t think it’s an appropriate policy approach,” she said.

Some 1,000 jobs in California directly depend on plastic bags, she estimated, and an unknown number of other jobs could be indirectly affected.

It will also have an impact on recycling efforts for the bags, she said.

“The stores are not incentivized to provide bins for materials for recycling,” Jackson said. “The infrastructure to collect bags is also good for other product wraps, including the wrap around sodas.”

Instead, municipalities should focus on litter prevention and education, Jackson argued.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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