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Council begins consideration of single-use plastics ban

SAN MARCOS — At its Dec. 10 meeting, City Council voted 5-0 to begin consideration of a single-use plastics ban ordinance, giving the nod to City Manager Jack Griffin and his staff to analyze what it would cost for the city and other stakeholders to make it happen.

The motion, not originally agendized, was brought forward by first-term Councilman Randy Walton. A Democrat elected to the officially nonpartisan seat in 2018, Walton called single-use plastic waste the “cigarette smoke of the 21st century.”

“It’s pervasive, it’s damaging our environment and we’re finding now — like cigarette smoke — it’s damaging to our health,” said Walton. “Since 1950, there have been over 8 billion metric tons of plastic produced and less than 10% of it has been recycled. And the vast majority of the plastic produced in the past 50 years is currently sitting in our landfills, on our land as litter. And as you’ve all seen if you’ve looked around the internet, in our oceans.”

Walton said that he drew inspiration from other cities that have recently voted on single-use plastic bans including San Diego, Solana Beach and Honolulu. He also pointed to existing concerns about plastic as it relates to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, given plastic is a petrochemical product.

He said he has already begun outreach to the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce and hopes the idea can get bipartisan and broad-reaching community support.

In response to Walton requesting a city of San Marcos staff study of the cost and feasibility of such legislation, Mayor Rebecca Jones — a Republican — said she agreed with the broad idea behind a plastic ban. She used the case study of plastic materials she often sees floating in the San Marcos Creek during cleanups and other community events to bring the point close to home.

“I would like to get a buy-in from the businesses in the community because I think this affects them the most,” said Jones. “And figure out from the business community what they’re doing, what their challenges would be, and give them some alternatives.”

Jones and Walton disagreed on one key point, though, centering around who would help drive the process of considering the ordinance.

Jones suggested that both the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce and the environmental activist group Oceana function as the chief liaisons to the city on the issue. But Walton called for a broader-oriented stakeholder outreach plan.

“I don’t think you can create a meaningful ordinance if you just direct two private organizations, the Chamber of Commerce and Oceana, if you want to solve this,” said Walton. “I definitely would love the involvement of the Chamber of Commerce and expect it because, you’re right, they would definitely be the most impacted. So, we want to hear their concerns more than anybody else’s.”

Councilwoman Sharon Jenkins, after the back-and-forth between Jones and Walton, asked Walton if the ordinance was under a hasty timeline. She said it is something that may take some time to study for a staff with a hefty workload going into a new General Plan consideration cycle. Jenkins also said outreach in 2020 on the issue should extend beyond chamber members and into the broader contours of the city’s business sector.

Griffin said it would take at least a matter of months to work through the research and analysis.

“The initial is that there are ordinances out there that have been adopted in a variety of places, so gathering some of that together to get the best ideas that are out there, that would be an important thing,” said Griffin. “I think the timing would be more driven in terms of the process, you know, if the council wanted to workshop it with the public and then workshop it with the business community, sort of like we do with the Climate Action Plan in a couple different ways with a couple different constituencies. Those multiple efforts will add some time.”

Walton said he expects the whole process to take last throughout 2020.

Jones also asked City Attorney Helen Holmes Peak if a city single-use plastics ban would become a moot point if the California Legislature adopts its own and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it into law. The legislature had already considered two different bills during the 2019 session which nearly passed through both chambers and got to Newsom’s desk.

“It depends on how legislation is worded,” said Peak. “Sometimes they give deference to the local agency, regulations which might be more strict than what they state has passed, allowing those to proceed. And sometimes they completely and utterly preempt. So, it depends.”

Ultimately, the City Council gave Griffin and his staff a deadline of roughly March to end the first batch of research and analysis on the issue and then come back before them to discuss his findings and set new deadlines going forward.

Griffin said that prior to the ordinance going from a studied concept to a proposed bill, the council could also choose to do a strategic communications plan, outreach sessions, workshops and other forms of education on the issue.

With the next meeting originally slated for Christmas Eve, City Council has opted to will not meet again until Jan. 14.