They're the 21st century tumbleweeds, more familiar to many High Desert residents than actual tumbleweeds. Windblown plastic grocery bags slide across city streets, cling to fences and light posts and hang in tatters on bushes in vacant fields.

Hesperia City Council members voted Wednesday to approve a new plastic bag-recycling program.

The new program is primarily an education campaign, intended to draw attention to Assembly Bill 2449, which went into effect on July 1, and mandates that large grocery stores provide reusable shopping bags and provide a way for customers to return clean plastic grocery bags.

"Plastic bags can be recycled into other items," Julie Ryan, the city's recycling coordinator, said Friday. "All of the grocery stores should be having [the recycling bins] at the front of the store. A lot of them have pulled them out of the corner."

"I think it's important to piggy-back off of what they've done. They've taken the initiative, Sacramento has," Mayor Rita Vogler said Friday. "So we take a little money, educate people, and try to make it work."

In fact, the city will be spending $16,700 on top of the $21,333 it normally spends on recycling for the plastic bag-recycling program. City staffers will meet with approximately 60 smaller local retailers to educate them about plastic bag recycling and give them a recycling toolkit.

"From a city standpoint, we can't impose a charge on plastic bags," Ryan said. AB 2449 specifically prohibits imposing a fee on merchants. "We can only encourage them, even the smaller stores, help them out, partner with them."

City representatives will also meet with Advance Disposal to discuss ways to "reduce the amount of litter blowing out of their trucks," according to a staff report presented to the council.

Plastic grocery bags are "the lightest thing to go," Councilman Thurston "Smitty" Smith said Friday, "And the wind picks it up and off it goes."

The program will also be advertised on bus shelter posters.

Councilman Tad Honeycutt objected to the program during the meeting, citing its cost and expressing doubt about its effectiveness.

"I personally find it somewhat offensive to spend taxpayer dollars to educate small businesses," he said. "I'd rather have a contest to see who can bring in the most plastic bags and we send them on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. It'd be less expensive and more effective. ... This doesn't get any bags picked up off Main Street."

Ryan said Friday that it's much too soon to judge the success or failure of AB 2449.

"It's a six-year state program ... so that does make it difficult to measure it in a month," she said. "I think [improvement] will really be from the grocery store level. Maybe it'll be that their plastic bag purchasing will decrease and their canvas bag purchasing will increase."

Ban on bags?
Wednesday, Smith suggested the city might want to go even further to combat plastic bag pollution.

"I'd like to see some staff report on outlawing plastic bags," he said.

Vogler said Friday that she doesn't want the council to ban the bags. Not yet, anyway.

"Well, I really want to exhaust everything first. I want to try with education. Really, they did a fabulous job with [educating the public about] recycling newspapers," she said. "I think we can do it here without taking it to the extreme."

The city of Oakland banned non-recyclable plastic grocery bags earlier this year, and earlier this month, the city was sued by a group that alleges mixing recyclable and non-recyclable bags together at recycling centers will render the recycled plastic useless. San Francisco's ban on non-recyclable plastic grocery bags will go into affect this fall. Los Angeles County, Berkeley and Santa Cruz are considering similar bans.

"I think a lot of cities are looking at San Francisco and LA to see how their programs are working," Ryan said.

"I don't know if you legally can [ban the bags] or not," Smith said. "Cloth bags, I think, will be the wave of the future. ... You stop and get some groceries and have your bag already with you.

"I think they're selling them for less than a dollar at the market and the city's giving them out, the chamber's giving them out."

City officials plan to give away cloth grocery bags at the Victor Valley Airshow in September, he said.

Vogler sang the praises of her cloth grocery bag at the August 1 city council meeting, and Friday, she lamented the amount of trash collecting around the city.

"I think some of the people on I Avenue have given up, you know? They have those nice yards and right outside their fences is a dump," she said. "I just think if I was a young couple and I went down the hill every day and I worked, I wouldn't have time to go out there every day and clean up."

In the end, the program passed by a 3-2 margin, with Honeycutt and Smith in opposition.

"This is the perfect time," Vogler said. "If we're ever going to be successful, this is the time to do it."

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.