OAKLEY -- City officials here appear less inclined than some of their counterparts to ban the widespread distribution of plastic shopping bags.

One day after Pittsburg's city leaders unanimously voted to restrict most retailers from placing customers' purchases in plastic bags, Oakley City Council on Tuesday debated the merits of adopting a similar ordinance.

But council members were divided, most voicing misgivings about this approach to reducing litter along with the threat that discarded bags pose to the environment.

Councilman Doug Hardcastle noted that there already are anti-littering laws on the books. In addition, he objected to the exception that Pittsburg's ordinance and those of several other cities in the county make for restaurants, allowing them to continue handing customer food in plastic bags.

Why exempt fast-food businesses when they're contributing to the trash around town? he asked rhetorically.

Councilman Randy Pope also disliked the ordinances that Richmond, El Cerrito and San Pablo have adopted because they allow retailers to keep the money they're required to charge customers who opt for paper bags at the checkout stand, a fee that's intended as an incentive to bring a reusable shopping bag from home.

Those funds would be better spent picking up trash, Pope said.

Instead of declaring an outright ban on plastic bags, Pope said he'd rather see Oakley mandate the use of a biodegradable variety that won't take so long to break down in a landfill.


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Mayor Kevin Romick wondered how much it would cost the city to enforce such a prohibition, an expense he thinks the state would just as soon pass on to local government.

What's more, Romick said other kinds of trash constitute a bigger problem than plastic bags.

Despite her colleagues' doubts, Councilwoman Diane Burgis stood fast in favor of the idea.

As the executive director of a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring Marsh Creek, she said she has firsthand knowledge of the damage that plastic bags can do to wildlife.

Burgis held up a framed display of indigestible objects that an albatross had regurgitated, among them pieces of plastic. The more trash a bird consumes, the more time it must spend searching for the food it needs to survive, she said.

In recent years, plastic grocery bags have made up a growing percentage of the litter that volunteers have collected during local cleanup days, Burgis added. Instituting an ordinance that takes many of these bags out of circulation conveys the message that Oakley leaders consider the environment worth protecting, she said.

"It's a beginning," Burgis said. "If we want to say we care, then I think this is a good first step."

In the end, council members took a cue from city Special Counsel Bill Galstan, who noted that this kind of ordinance is most effective when multiple communities in an area adopt it.

Establishing the same rules throughout a region makes it easier for shoppers traveling between cities to remember to bring a reusable bag with them, he explained.

The council decided to wait and see if Antioch and Brentwood show interest in curtailing the use of plastic shopping bags before taking any further action.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.