RICHMOND -- It's a city that loves firsts, and on Tuesday, Richmond added to its resume by becoming the first in Contra Costa County to ban plastic bags in grocery and retail stores.
The ordinance, approved Tuesday by a divided City Council and set to take effect Jan. 1, also imposes a 5-cent fee on paper bags for two years, then rising to 10 cents, which will be collected by the merchants. City staff said the fee on paper bags is meant as an incentive for consumers to opt for reusable bags.
Several of Richmond's leaders sounded their familiar refrain of being proud to pass unusual or even unprecedented legislation. In recent years, Richmond has made headlines with a slew of laws and policies, including allowing more marijuana dispensaries per capita than any other East Bay city, being the first in the county to issue its own municipal identification cards and the first in the state to endorse a so-called "millionaire's tax."
Richmond made worldwide headlines with its attempt to be the first city in the nation to tax sugary drinks, which was trounced by voters last year, and is generating growing buzz with its efforts to be the first city in the nation to use eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages from bondholders.
The council approved the plastic bag ban over objections from some council members and residents who complained the fees may unfairly hit low-income residents.
Councilmen Nat Bates and Jael Myrick abstained, and Corky Boozé was absent for the vote but expressed disagreement earlier in the meeting. Myrick abstained after unsuccessfully arguing for a provision to exempt seniors and people on food stamps from paying the 5-cent paper bag fee.
Richmond's vote came just hours after Los Angeles became the 77th and by far the largest jurisdiction to ban plastic bags. Several cities and counties in the Bay Area have similar bans, including Alameda County, San Francisco and San Jose.
Plastic bag bans have been sweeping California and the nation since 2007, when San Francisco became the first city to ban the bags at grocery stores. But the trend has yet to take hold in Contra Costa County.
"I always like to be the first through the finish line (nationwide), but I'll take first in Contra Costa County instead," Councilman Tom Butt said.
The ordinance, which has been in the works for years, includes a $250 fine to penalize merchants who don't comply.
Jennifer Ly, a sustainability analyst in the city manager's office, said the city has conducted outreach and distributed more than 5,000 reusable bags in recent years to ease the transition for consumers. She said Richmond hopes to distribute 12,000 more reusable bags, funded by grants, in the coming months.
Richmond in 2010 passed an ordinance prohibiting the use of polystyrene foam food ware and requiring that its approximately 350 restaurants use compostable alternatives. Ly said fewer than 10 merchants had been fined for noncompliance in the years since.
Local merchants had mixed reactions to the new law Wednesday.
"I like the move, and I know it will be welcomed by most of our customers," said Sopheap Yin, owner of the Richmond Grocery Outlet. "I would guess that about 40 percent of our customers already use their own bags, so it won't be too hard to adjust and explain to our customers that we won't be giving out plastic bags anymore."
At Tobacco World, a smoke shop on Macdonald Avenue, news of the new law was less well-received.
"We'll have to stop giving them out I guess; if we have no choice, we have no choice," owner Abdo Alghazali said. "Sometimes, our customers really want a bag, so I know they won't be happy. On the other hand, I guess it will save me a little money."
According to a city staff report, the new ordinance applies to "department stores, clothing stores, liquor stores, book stores, specialty stores, drugstores, convenience stores, etc." Restaurants are not covered.
Ly noted that neighboring cities El Cerrito and San Pablo are scheduled to consider similar ordinances this summer.