WALNUT CREEK -- By this fall, paper or plastic will no longer be a choice in Walnut Creek.
In a 4-1 decision, the Walnut Creek City Council voted Tuesday to join the100 other cities and counties throughout the state banning single-use carryout plastic bags at all restaurants and retail stores, including supermarkets and pharmacies.
The City Council fast-tracked this ordinance last fall, prompting Councilman Justin Wedel -- the lone vote against the bag ban -- to begin an initiative process asking Walnut Creek voters to overturn the ban.
Walnut Creek is the fifth city in the county -- after Richmond, El Cerrito, Pittsburg and San Pablo -- to ban plastic bags.
A Walnut Creek assessment done in 2010 found that plastic bags were the most commonly found litter in the city's waterways. Banning bags will help the city meet federal requirements to reduce litter, according to city leaders.
"What we have been doing in the name of convenience is using the environment as our trash can and it's not intentional," said Councilwoman Cindy Silva.
The adopted ordinance will require stores to charge a fee of from 10 to 25 cents for each bag. There are exceptions for paper and plastic bags without handles for meat, produce, dry-cleaned clothes, prepared foods and prescription medications.
The ban for all stores goes into effect in September. But because restaurants were originally exempt from the ban -- the council later opted to include them -- eateries have until December to comply. City staff said they will need that extra time to educate restaurants on the new ban. Restaurants will not charge for the use of paper takeout bags.
While a state law mandates grocers provide recycling for plastic bags, recycling them is costly and doesn't remove them from the environment, said Rinta Perkins, a city program manager. In fact, a study found that only 3 percent of plastic bags in California are recycled, she said.
Fines to business owners for noncompliance are $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second within 12 months and $500 for the third and all subsequent violations.
While many speakers Tuesday lauded the council, others said the ban goes too far. One regular City Council attendee wore a plastic grocery bag on his head in protest during the public hearing.
William Cottrell disagreed with an initial proposal -- later removed by the council -- to exempt those on food stamps from having to pay for paper bags. He argued that the homeless and low-income likely turn the most bags into litter, and called the ban "unwanted regulation."
But groups such as the downtown business association, grocer retailers association and local grocery unions support the ban. Many argued the bags are terrible for the environment; Lesley Hunt, an expert on local creeks, said there were no plastic bags 30 years ago, and that everyone survived.
"The time has come to do something about it," she said. "To people who worry about government intrusion, I don't see that as a big deal."
A bill in the state legislature, if passed, would ban plastic bags at grocery stores and certain other retailers statewide. But it does not go as far as Walnut Creek's, which also bans plastic for restaurants, book stores and departments stores. Even if the state bill passes, Walnut Creek's ordinance would take precedence locally.
With the potential city ballot measure and the state bill, it doesn't make fiscal sense to spend $35,000 implementing Walnut Creek's new ban, Wedel said. But Silva said the ordinance will save the city money by not spending to pick up littered plastic bags.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.