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Whole Foods Backpedals on Paper Bag Fee

Grocery chain had planned to impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags at its four stores in Marin to comply with new county ordinance but rescinded the move after realizing it didn’t apply to its stores.

has rescinded a plan to impose a 5-cent fee on all paper bags handed out at its four stores in Marin, saying it was confused about the applicability of the that goes into effect Jan. 1.

The grocery chain, with two stores in Mill Valley and one apiece in San Rafael and Novato, posted signs last week (pictured at right) at its stores notifying customers that it would be charging 5 cents per paper bag as of today.

In doing so, it cited the plastic bag ban ordinance last January. The ordinance includes the 5-cent fee as a way to discourage customers from simply transitioning from plastic bags to paper bags once the plastic ban goes into effect.

But the county ordinance only applies to retail markets in unincorporated Marin - the in Strawberry but not on Camino Alto in Mill Valley, for instance. For a similar plastic bag ban to go into effect at stores within city limits, each respective city council would need to pass its own ordinance.

Dori Beron, the manager of the Whole Foods on East Blithedale, said the stores took down the signs after realizing that the county ban wouldn’t apply to Whole Foods’ four stores in Marin.

“It was unclear to us and we pulled the signs down,” she said. “We don’t want to impose the fee unless we have to.”

Mill Valley City Councilman Ken Wachtel said he received a number of complaints about the signs from residents who supported the ban but knew the county’s ordinance didn’t apply to Whole Foods’ stores in Mill Valley. He said he had no problem if Whole Foods chose to impose a paper bag fee on its own.

“The pricing of bags in their stores is completely in their hands,” he said. “They just can’t justify it on the county ordinance because it doesn’t apply. That seemed a little wrong and didn’t make sense.”

The bag ban isn’t likely to get passed by city councils soon. The Mill Valley City Council to wait before passing its own ordinance because of the over the county’s ban.

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition after the board approved the ban, and despite a Marin Superior Court ruling in September that threw out the group’s attempt to block the ban, the organization’s founder and attorney Stephen Joseph appealed the ruling Nov. 29. He must file an appellate brief in February.

At the Mill Valley City Council’s meeting in November, several residents asked the council not to wait until the coalition’s lawsuit against the county is resolved. Maureen Parton, aide to and , who before his passing in March, encouraged the council to move ahead with its own ordinance before January.

Parton said retail markets in unincorporated Marin will be at a disadvantage if nearby stores within city limits offered plastic bags and they did not. Mill Valley Market and the two Whole Foods Markets in Mill Valley don’t offer carryout plastic bags, so the focus of a ban within city limits would be on the drug stores and Safeway at Camino Alto (None of the proposed bans focus on the plastic bags provided for produce and bulk items, however).

Although the county's ban doesn't apply to Mill Valley Market, the downtown store increased the credit it gives to customers for each full-sized bag they reuse at the store - from 5 cents to 10 cents per bag.

"Please bring in your own bags and/or reuse ours," the market's owners wrote to its customers. "It is good for all of us."

Mill Valley City Councilwoman Shawn Marshall, a plastic bag ban proponent, commended Whole Foods for trying to be consistent at its stores but said they “jumped the gun.” She said the council is anxious to pass its own plastic bag ban once the lawsuit is brought to a conclusion.

“I understand why we need to take a prudent approach on this and wait until some of the legal issues that tend to be costly get resolved,” she said. “But I’m also very interested, as are my colleagues, in advancing this as soon as that pathway is cleared.”

Magoo January 01, 2012 at 04:18 PM
I always bring my own reusable bags. All stores should charge 50 cents per bag. The five cents donation (for bringing your own bag) to Kiddo! at the Whole Foods on Miller is a joke. Few families, who create the biggest carbon foot print, bring their own bags. It seems like the checkers prefer you to take the five cents credit.
Cathy Rosekrans January 01, 2012 at 05:02 PM
As a consumer, I'm very impressed that Mill Valley Market has been willing to step away from the pack and increase their bag charge. I will do more shopping there, even though I'm closer to both WFs. I'm also disappointed by the WF response. They could have voluntarily charged rather than say that they don't want to charge until forced. I will do less shopping there.
Julie Owen Hanft January 01, 2012 at 05:31 PM
On the question of "Would a 5-cent paper bag fee make you more likely to bring reusable bags with you to the grocery store?" . . . People need to stop using disposable goods. There aren't enough resources on the Earth for you (and the other 7 billion people on the planet) to have a paper bag every time you shop. And plastic bags are so polluting (just look at all of them flying around the shoulders of the 101). Those are just a couple of reasons why my family brings our own bags to the store, not because of the nickel.
Sherran Moyer January 01, 2012 at 10:45 PM
Well that's too bad, even though WF is not required by law, I think it IS required by commonsense. When I saw their sign out front recently saying they'd charge 5 cents, I thought yeah, they don't have to do it and they are! I say we all leave a "comment" on WF's board saying we WANT them to do them -- whether required by law or not.
Cathy Rosekrans January 02, 2012 at 12:32 AM
Good idea, Sherran. I just got on the East Blithedale Whole Foods website and let them know that I wish they would charge for paper NOW... without being forced. They could be leaders in this regard, and perhaps other Mill Valley stores would fall in behind them. Too bad they chose a less environmentally friendly approach.
Sorry, I completely disagree with both Cathy and Sherran! Too much govenment intervension in our lives. We don't need laws or ordinances telling us how to live our lives and what environmental rules are for our own good or not. Let us, we the people, decide how to handle the bag situation. Stephanie witt
Cathy Rosekrans January 02, 2012 at 01:21 AM
This is not about government intervention. It is about a Whole Foods business decision. I would like to see them charge for paper BEFORE and maybe therefore WITHOUT being forced. So... do you think it appropriate for WF (as a private business) to charge a nickel for paper? Or do you think they made a good decision to announce a charge and then say they wouldn't charge without government forcing them to.
Magoo January 02, 2012 at 04:24 PM
Sorry, I have a long memory. Were you not a big advocate of "Saving Horse Hill", to prevent the owners of that land to build residential housing? Saving Horse Hill would not have happened without government intervention. Sometimes a government must step in. I think it's great that the Chinese government allows couples to have only one child. Maybe we should have a limit here.

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