Arcata City Council discusses banning single-use plastic bottles

Debate over education vs regulation

The Arcata City Council discussed drafting a ban on single-use plastic bottles and other disposable single-use plastic items. (Philip Santos — The Times-Standard)

The Arcata City Council discussed several aspects of a plan to expand the city’s zero waste strategy to include the prohibition of single-use plastic bottles as well as other single-use items made of plastic at their meeting Wednesday evening.

While the council expressed unanimous support for the need to reduce the amount of plastic waste produced by the city and its residents, the means to achieve that objective were debated at length.

The purpose of the discussion Wednesday evening was to provide city staff with direction on the issue. The general guidance offered by the council primarily tasked city staff with further researching a ban of packaged water on city property, a citywide ban on single-use plastic bottles, further research into existing policies that parallel the concept in other cities and states, and the composition of a letter advocating for a comprehensive marketing effort regarding plastic prohibition to be sent to state officials.

City Manager Karen Diemer said a draft ordinance mirroring the requests of the council could be produced, at the soonest, in mid-march or April.

The concerns of such an ordinance varied among the council. Councilman Michael Winkler expressed worries regarding the potential for a lawsuit from companies that produce the products that might be banned.

“Is it more defensible,” Winkler asked, speaking to City Attorney Nancy Diamond, “(if) something (is) passed by the citizens than if it’s passed by the city council?”

Diamond said ordinances voted in by the citizenry are usually exempt from the CEQA process. Later, Councilwoman Susan Ornelas expressed a desire to see more of an effort on behalf of the community and the state to educate the general populous as to why such bans might be implemented.

“It is the right thing, it’s just in the wrong package,” she said. “A ‘got milk’ kind of marketing effort could really internalize it for a lot of people and make a point to people.”

Councilman Paul Pitino, in response, said he wanted to see the council “take action.”

“If they can’t buy it, then there’s no problem,” he said. “We need to try it, we’ve been talking about this for years now.”

Councilwoman Sofia Pereira reminded the council that Recology Humboldt has expressed a desire to assist in this issue, even offering to provide support in crafting a statewide ballot initiative. Recology’s involvement “would be really key for me,” she said.

Ornelas, who later characterized herself as playing devil’s advocate, continued to express concern that regulation was a poor way to change the habits of people when education is an option. Ornelas said she was sure residents would find a way around the ban, whether it be by traveling out of the area, circumventing size limitations, or outright violating the ban. Marketing and education, she maintained, is a key element in the process of transitioning away from producing large amounts of plastic waste.

“What is a person going to do who doesn’t understand why we’re doing this,” she asked.

Pitino responded that policy is publicity.

Mayor Brett Watson then offered one option.

“(We can) do marketing and education,” he said. “But also (lead) by example.”

Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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