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City of Palo Alto 

Plastic Bag Restriction and Reusable Bag Promotion 



Palo Alto’s new Ordinance (

nk/blobdload.asp?BlobID=15550) prohibits large grocery stores from distributing single use plastic checkout bags as of September 18, 2009. Materials prepared to advise store personnel and customers about the new restriction can be seen on the Palo Alto website: k/blobdload.asp?BlobID=17476


¾ Single-Use Plastic Carryout Bags not allowed.

¾ Applies only to large grocery stores for now.

¾ Paper bags are allowed if the post-consumer recycled content is 40% or greater.

¾ Plastic bags are allowed in produce and meat departments.

¾ Reusable bags are encouraged to save resources and minimize conversion to paper.

Public Outreach:

Meetings were held with grocery stores, drug stores, and food service facilities.

Regulatory action on drug stores and food service facilities was deferred pending further work on pharmacy and prepared food issues.

Environmental Review (CEQA):

Although limited in number and scope, studies done by others have concluded that paper bags consume more energy to produce than plastic bags. Since an Ordinance restricting plastic bags could lead to a switch to paper, Palo Alto conducted an environmental review resulting in a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND). The MND ( concluded that any potential increases in greenhouse gas emissions from increased vehicle trips and

Did You Bring Your Own Bag?


short-term conversion to paper bags would be reduced to a less than significant level by Palo Alto’s programs to promote the use of reusable bags by shoppers. initiated litigation because an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was not prepared. The case was settled out of court to save City staff time and resources.

Palo Alto agreed to prepare an EIR before extending the plastic bag restriction to other stores.

Council Direction for Further Action:

¾ Other Stores: Staff is working on extending the plastic bag restriction to other stores. Based on plastic bags found in the natural environment, it appears the most important category to address next are other stores selling food. First, an EIR must be prepared. Palo Alto is contributing to work being done on an EIR by California Green Cities and following similar work being done by San Jose and others. Palo Alto will collaborate with others to produce the most cost effective EIR possible.

¾ Fee on Paper Bags: Palo Alto staff were directed by Council to prepare recommendations on a fee system on single-use paper bags and are currently working on fee program issues. If a fee is be imposed and retained by government, a study must be performed demonstrating that the fee is needed to offset City costs. If the fee is to be retained by stores, supporting rational and authorization will need to be identified.

Pre-Existing Ordinance

Palo Alto’s pre-existing Ordinance on single-use bags requires that a store, any store, offering single-use plastic bags, must also offer paper bags. This provision remains in effect in Palo Alto.


Palo Alto has actively been promoting reusable bag use since the 1990’s locally and in collaboration with Santa Clara County-wide and San Francisco Bay Area-wide efforts.

Prior to 2008, Palo Alto estimates that it has distributed approximately 20,000 reusable bags at various events and through a series of programs. These efforts have included newspaper advertising, radio and television promotions, utility bill inserts, participation at community events, store posters and reusable bag giveaways. In 2008, Palo Alto began a more concerted and focused effort to increase reusable bag use.

2008 Bring Your Own Bag (BYOBag) Campaign

In February 2008, Palo Alto conducted an observational study of shopper’s bag use habits and launched a campaign April – December, 2008 to increase reusable bag use. The campaign consisted of partnering with retail stores and community organizations to facilitate engaging the community. In exchange for their efforts, the 38 participating partners were acknowledged in print and online advertising at


a level that corresponded to a tiered reward system. Shoppers were enticed to use reusable bags with incentives from retail partners and coupons for discounts on reusable bag purchases. Campaign promotion included a website, newspaper ads, online ads, discount coupon in utility bill insert, store posters, parking lot signs, campaign buttons for store clerks, a bag monster character that made scheduled and impromptu public appearances, the painting of reusable bags by children at local art camps, girl scouts tabling at store entrances, community members creating a display at a neighborhood block party, tabling at corporate employee events, stores hanging BYOBag banners, City staff participating in a children’s parade, bag giveaways and local news stories on the campaign.

The web site included education on the issues with single-use carryout bags, where to purchase reusable bags, incentives offered by partner stores, and downloadable BYOBag promotional materials.

In April 2008, Palo Alto also helped lead a San Francisco Bay Area-wide campaign in conjunction with the Bay Area Recycling Outreach Coalition (BayROC), BayROC is a partnership of over 100 cities in the nine Bay Area Counties that pool their resources to create shared outreach, education messages and promotional campaigns. The campaign consisted of online click ads to targeted audiences, bag giveaways, radio spots and the creation of the web site.

March/April 2009 Financial Hardship Reusable Bag Giveaway

During March and April 2009 Palo Alto coordinated the giveaway of reusable bags to Palo Alto households for whom the purchase of bags may be a financial hardship. The City partnered with Mollie Stone’s Market and a postcard was mailed to 1,700 Palo Alto households. For the month of April 2009, the postcard was redeemable for three reusable bags. No purchase was necessary and the City reimbursed the grocer for the costs of the bags.

In addition, the City worked with housing organizations for direct distribution of reusable bags to residents by the property management. Bags were purchased by the City and distributed to 219 households.

Households targeted for the giveaways were identified by their qualification in other programs that provide financial support such as Utilities Rate Assistance Program, affordable housing programs, and the Palo Alto Unified School Districts low/not cost lunch programs. At total of 1,338 bags were distributed to Palo Alto households in need.

September 18, 2009 Reusable Bag Give-Away:

On the effective date of Palo Alto’s new Ordinance for large grocery stores approximately 3,000 bags were given away at affected stores, with almost all affected stores participating.


2009 Reusable Bag Campaign:

As a follow-up to the 2008 Campaign, the City repeated its observational survey of shopper’s bag use habits in February 2009. Survey results, anecdotal data and focus group findings indicated that Palo Altans had reusable bags but remembering them was the barrier to using them. The September 2009 – April 2010 campaign, is focused on just that. The theme of the campaign is humorous and lighthearted with a lonely bag longing to be taken shopping and the tagline, “Make it a habit and Grab it.”

Again Palo Alto is partnering with retailers and organizations to promote remembering to bring reusable bags. Tools for retailers include shopping cart corral signs, store posters, campaign buttons for store clerks, static cling window decals, floor decals, store banners and parking lot and shopping center signs. A reminder kit for shoppers was created that includes a static cling window decal, sticky note reminders and a shopping list magnet. Retail stores and organizations are distributing reminder kits to shoppers. Other campaign components include video blog testimonials featuring how shoppers remember their bags. Shopper and store challenges, an updated website and creative store incentives are in development to help shoppers remember whenever and wherever they shop. Campaign publicity includes traditional methods of reaching the community and utilization of social media such as blogging and usage of Facebook® and Twitter®.

Also in September 2009, Palo Alto helped lead a renewed BayROC Bay Area-wide campaign promoting remembering reusable bags. The BayROC campaign, conducted September – October 2009, partnered with San Francisco State University Students to create campaign components for radio, cable and broadcast television. Several cities, including Palo Alto, held press events in September to kick-off their local and BayROC regional campaigns. Palo Alto’s press event, held at Piazza’s Fine Foods, included the stenciling of “Got Bags?” graphics on the parking lot by a Girl Scout Troop and video blogging by shoppers providing tips for remembering bags. The parking lot stencil was provided in partnership with Keep California Beautiful’s statewide campaign and the City has made the stencils available to Palo Alto stores for stenciling their parking lots.



The key program goals are to:

1. Reduce single-use plastic bags, and 2. Increase the use of reusable bags.

Single-Use Plastic Bag Reduction

The primary measure of success of this goal is the compliance percentage at stores affected by the Ordinance. One hundred percent of the affected large grocery stores have complied.

Reusable Bag Percentage

Beginning 2008 and repeated the first quarter of the calendar year, Palo Alto has conducted observational surveys of shoppers exiting grocery stores and pharmacies to quantify reusable bags use. The results to date are:

Percent Reusable Bag Use At Palo Alto Grocery Stores and Pharmacies

2008 (First Quarter) 9%

2009 (First Quarter) 18%


Plastics (including links to Reusable Bag Promotions and Palo Alto Plastics Policy):

Plastic Bag:

Expanded Polystyrene:

Car Windshield Decal “Don’t Leave Me Behind”

Refrigerator “BYOBag” Magnet


Key Provisions

Palo Alto Plastic Bag Ordinance

5.35.030 Type of Checkout Bags Permitted at Supermarkets

(a) All supermarkets within the City of Palo Alto shall provide only the following as Checkout Bags to customers: Reusable Bags and/or Recyclable Paper Bags.

(b) Nothing in this Chapter shall be read to preclude Supermarkets from making Reusable Bags available for sale to customers.

(c) All Supermarkets are strongly encouraged to educate their staff to promote Reusable Bags.

5.35.020 Types of Checkout Bags Permitted at Retail Establishments

(a) All Retail Establishments within the City of Palo Also shall provide the following as Checkout Bags to customers: Paper bags only, or a choice between paper or plastic bags. If the Retail Establishment offers customers a choice of paper or plastic bags at the checkstand, cash register or other point of departure, the customer shall be asked whether he or she requires or prefers that the good purchased be placed in paper or plastic bags. The goods shall be placed in the type of bag requested by the customer.

(b) Nothing in this Section shall be read to preclude Retail Establishments from making Reusable Bags available for sale to customers.

(c) This Section shall not apply to Supermarkets as defined in Section 5.35.010(f).

5.35.010 Definitions

(b) “Recyclable Paper Bag” or “Recyclable Paper Checkout Bag” means a paper bag that meets all of the following requirements: (1) contains no old growth fiber, (2) is 100% recyclable overall and contains a minimum of 40% post-consumer recycled content, and (3) displays the word

“Recyclable” on the outside of the bag.

(d) “Reusable Bag” means a bag with handles that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse and is either (1) made of cloth or other machine washable fabric, and/or (2) made of durable plastic that is at least 2.25 mils thick and is suitable for reuse.

(e) “Single-Use Plastic Checkout Bag” means any Checkout Bag made from plastic, excluding Reusable Bags.

(f) “Supermarket” means a full-line, self service grocery store within the City of Palo Alto with gross annual sales of two million dollars ($2,000,000.00) or more which sells several lines of dry grocery, canned goods, perishable food, produce and meat and some nonfood items. The City shall use the annual updates of the Progressive Grocer Marketing Guidebook and any computer printouts developed in conjunction with the guidebook to determine gross annual sales.

A complete copy of the Ordinance may be viewed at the following location:

Plastic Bag: