Shoppers in parts of Santa Cruz County are paying more to use paper bags starting Wednesday and the county handed out free canvas bags to encourage reusable over single-use bags.
Grocery markets and other stores outside city limits must begin charging customers 25 cents per paper bag at checkout as part of the county's effort to reduce disposable carryout bags, county public works resource planner Tim Goncharoff said.
Wednesday was also the first anniversary of Santa Cruz County's ban on single-use plastic bags. The cities of Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Capitola also have approved bans on plastic, Goncharoff said.
While paper bags will still be permitted for the 25-cent fee — which the businesses keep as revenue — the county is seeking to discourage paper bags as well, Goncharoff said.
Unlike plastic bags that take years to decompose and are more harmful to the environment, paper bags deteriorate faster but contain chemicals like mercury and the paper manufacturing process "is one of the dirtiest industries we know," Goncharoff said.
"The key is to have people bring their own reusable bags so that we have taken care of the problem of disposable bags," Goncharoff said.
Another ban takes effect on April 22, to coincide with Earth Day, when restaurants in unincorporated Santa Cruz County may no longer hand out food in plastic bags.
Restaurants, however, will be permitted to provide paper bags free of charge for takeout food, Goncharoff said.
"We didn't want people to have to hold out their hands for their burgers and fries," he said.
About 68 cities in California have enacted bans on plastic bags, about 100 others are considering it and there are bills in the State Legislature to ban them statewide, Goncharoff said.
"We think the time will come when we will see the end of plastic bags in California," he said.
The trend against plastic and paper bags has taken hold in Santa Cruz County, where an estimated 80 percent of residents bring reusable bags with them when they shop, Goncharoff said.
The county has given away thousands of reusable bags already and handed out about 2,000 today at three grocery stores in unincorporated areas, Goncharoff said.
Santa Cruz residents, being close to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, are sensitive to the ill effects of plastic bags on sea turtles and other animals that mistake them for jellyfish and starve after feeling full from eating them, he said.
Lauren Dockendorf, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Save our Shores, said volunteers from her group handed out the county's free reusable canvas bags at grocery markets in Aptos, Felton and Ben Lomond today.
Since the county's ban last year, volunteers from Save our Shores, which combs Santa Cruz beaches and rivers to remove plastic bags, have found 80 percent fewer bags in the county, Dockendorf said.
"A lot people come to Santa Cruz and buy food and go to the beach, so we see a lot of plastic bags there," she said. "But we have seen a huge decrease."
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