Next month, California might almost catch up with Carpinteria.
The small beach town in Santa Barbara County, population 13,500, is rarely cited as a leader in anything. But when it comes to the California cause of eliminating single-use bags—a cause responsible for two different state measures on the November ballot—Carpinteria is our model city.
Carpinteria boasts California’s broadest ban on single-use bags. It doesn’t just bar getting plastic at the grocery store or other larger retailers; it’s the only place in the state that prohibits paper bags as well. By contrast, the proposed state ban on bags—which voters are being asked to approve by the referendum known as Prop 67—prohibits only single-use plastic bags and allows people to get their groceries in a paper, recyclable or compostable bag if they pay a 10-cent fee.
The debate over plastic bags may seem like a very narrow policy question whether the benefits of keeping plastic bags out of the environment outweigh the inconvenience of having to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. But the bag ban is actually part of a much broader story about community transformation that is as beautiful as Carpinteria’s famous seaside bluffs. This coming Carpinteriazation of California offers reassurance that, even in the grandest of states, it’s still possible for a few individuals in a small place to make an outsized difference.
The bags story in Carp (as locals weary of saying the five-syllable name call their town) goes back 10 or 25 or even 50 years, depending on your perspective. An oil town with what is touted as the “world’s safest beach” (south facing and well-protected by the Channel Islands), Carp developed a strong environmental bent in the 1960s, in part in response to the disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969.
The roots of the local bag ban lie in that environmental conscience—and in the early 1990s recession that brought hard times. As vacancies in the small downtown rose and graffiti became more common, several residents incorporated the all-volunteer Carpinteria Beautiful civic organization. Then, as now, it had no dues and no rules for members—other than if you bring up an idea, you’re in charge of it. It started with graffiti-removal and then took on all kinds of local projects, from litter pickups and bus bench painting, to maintenance of the millstone fountain in Seaside Park and the Linden Beach Ping-Pong table.
Carpinteria Beautiful and related groups were also active in environmental causes, including fighting to protect Carp’s distinctive bluffs, which offer some of California’s finest views, from development. And they allied themselves with local businesses, both on beautification and in beating back efforts to create a local redevelopment agency, which many feared would bring more chain stores to the town.
Carpinteria Beautiful first became interested in doing away with single-use plastic bags in 2007, after Santa Barbara City College students and faculty presented at a city council meeting on the environmental problems caused by plastic bags ending up in waterways (Carp has three big creeks) and the ocean. Other coastal cities were pursuing bans, and Carp’s city government wanted to join them but opted not to because of the legal costs of defending the city against inevitable litigation from bag manufacturers. Carpinteria Beautiful, instead, began a community campaign to encourage citizens to switch voluntarily to reusable grocery bags; it won some converts, but not as many as a ban would.
In 2011, the conversation changed. The local Albertsons grocery store was undergoing renovations, and its manager, Ahmed Jahadhmy, a longtime Carp resident, was determined to make his store the leader in a push by Albertsons to create green stores, in everything from lighting to refrigeration. So he declared the Albertsons “bagless” and worked to convince people to switch to reusable bags, enlisting schools and encouraging residents to design bags. Fortuitously, the California Supreme Court a few months later found in favor of the city of Manhattan Beach in a lawsuit over its own bag ban; that gave Carpinteria the confidence to enact a ban in 2012.
The impact was clear. Volunteers who pre-ban had found 40 to 50 plastic bags during creek clean-ups were now finding one or two. Some give partial credit to the ban for the health of Carpinteria Salt Marsh, which is fed by two of those creeks; when I visited the estuary not too long ago, there were leopard sharks and kids swimming there.
“The beauty of it was the community,” said Jahadhmy. “The people here are just so understanding and patient, and all the groups and the businesses in Carpinteria were involved in the whole process.” Word of Carp’s green Albertsons has spread beyond the town and the state, to the powers that be in Washington—the store has received visitors from the U.S. Department of Energy and even the White House.
Locals say the ban—and all the other beautification work—renewed the city and created momentum for tougher fights, including against an effort to permit new oil drilling in Carpinteria. Going forward, the success of the ban could provide momentum to efforts to introduce commercial composting, improve water quality, and get the city government of Carpinteria certified as a green business (just like corporations who take measures showing they exceed environmental requirements).
As California debates whether to approve the single-use bag ban statewide, the picture can seem complicated. It doesn’t help that there’s a second bags-related measure, Prop 65, which proposes to redirect fees for paper bags to environmental causes, but was put on the ballot by the plastic bag industry to create voter confusion about Prop 67, the referendum on the statewide ban. And with so many different municipal bans—by one count, there are 122 local ordinances covering 151 local jurisdictions with various versions of a single-use bag ban in the state— people in different communities already have varying experiences with such bans.
So why not keep it simple and think only of that beach city south of Santa Barbara? What, after all, could possibly be wrong with making California a little bit more like Carp?
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo by Bianca Almada.