California legislature looks to ban the bag

California is poised to become the nation’s first state to ban single-use plastic and paper bags at supermarkets and convenience stores.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, breaking with his usual practice of not taking a position on legislation until it reaches his desk, praised passage of the measure by the Assembly in June, signaling his likely signature should it pass in the Senate.   

“This bill will be a great victory for our environment,” the GOP governor said in a statement.   Pending in the Senate, the bill, AB 1998, would forbid large stores from providing customers with single-use bags of either paper or plastic starting January 1, 2012. Stores could offer reusable bags for sale or provide paper bags composed of at least 40 percent recycled material at a cost of not less than 5 cents.          

Supporters say plastic bags are urban tumbleweeds, costly to dispose of, rarely recycled, a major source of litter and harmful to marine life.   

     “Keeping California’s oceans, beaches and parks pristine is vital to protect our marine life, our tourist industry and our fisheries,” said the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat.  “Single-use carryout bags pollute our waterways and injure or kill marine life.”   

Estimates are that 60 percent to 80 percent of marine debris is plastic. 

Opponents counter that the charge on paper bags could cost consumers $1 billion annually – revenue pocketed by the store selling the bags – and that the ban burdens small convenience stores and may cause the loss of manufacturing jobs in the plastics industry.   “Hard-working families are struggling just to pay for their groceries, not bag them,” said Assemblyman Jeff Miller, a Corona Republican, during the Assembly floor debate on the proposed ban.   

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, an Irvine Republican, also criticized the measure as further “nannyism” by government.   We continue to go down the road of making more and more instructive laws, prescribing and dictating to the people of California precisely how they are to live their lives,” DeVore said during the debate. “I believe in these tough economic times, we should be focused on the basics.”   

Californians use over 19 billion plastic bags each year creating over 147,000 tons of waste, according to Brownley. The state spends $25 million annually to clean up plastic bag waste. Cities and counties some $300 million.   The California Integrated Waste Management Board estimates between 5 percent and 6 percent of the bags are recycled.   

Brownley’s measure would be phased in over two years. Convenience stores would have until July 1, 2013 to comply with the ban – 18 months after supermarkets and stores over 10,000 square feet containing pharmacies would stop giving customers single-use bags. 

Current law requires large stores to have an in-store recycling program for plastic carryout bags. The program would end if Brownley’s bill becomes law. In a recent Senate committee hearing, she agreed to extend the recycling program through July 1, 2013 when the provisions of her bill are fully implemented.   

Opponents of Brownley’s bill say they favor greater recycling of plastic bags rather than a ban and urge keeping the current recycling system.   “By banning plastic bags, grocery stores will no longer be required to provide recycling bins for these products and a critical consumer recycling infrastructure will be dismantled,” wrote Tim Shestek, director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council in a June 21 letter opposing Brownley’s bill unless it’s amended.   

Supporting the ban are environmental groups and the California Grocers Association, which previously has opposed both creation of plastic bag recycling programs and potential bans.   However, as several California cities – Fairfax, Palo Alto, Malibu and San Francisco, among them – have imposed bans of varying severity, the association has sought a statewide law that would be applied uniformly.   

Brownley’s bill not only creates one statewide law, its last paragraph invalidates all local ordinances on the subject.  It reads:   

     “No city, county, or other local public agency may enforce or implement any existing or new ordinance, resolution, regulation, or rule on any store as defined by this chapter relating to reusable bags, single-use carryout bags, recycled paper bags, or any other bag referred to in this chapter.”   

Additionally, grocery stores and other retailers are allowed to charge for the recycled paper bags and pocket the proceeds. Brownley’s bill only sets a 5-cent minimum stores can charge for a paper bag.  There is no maximum.   

There is a special section in Brownley’s bill for San Francisco, which has a curbside collection program of food waste for composting. The city encourages stores to stock compostable plastic bags to aid in the program. Compostable plastic bags could still be sold in San Francisco at a charge of not less than 5 cents if Brownley’s bill becomes law.   

Besides the chemistry council, opponents include the California Forestry Association and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association Among their arguments is that significantly greater use of paper bags caused by a plastic bag ban exacts an environmental toll.   Producing plastic bags uses 70 percent less energy than paper bags and requires less than 6 percent of the water needed to make a paper bag.   

A study by Boustead Consulting and Associates found that as much as 10 million trees would need to be cut down each year to meet increased paper bag usage. As a result, passage of Brownley’s measure would increase greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of adding 214,000 cars to California’s highways.   The Plastic Pollution Coalition, a supporter of Brownley’s bill agrees with opponents on that point:   

     “Paper bags are not a viable alternative to plastic bags.  Paper bag production contributes to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and waterborne wastes from the pulping and paper making process,” wrote Daniella Russo, a co-founder of the coalition and its executive director in a June 28 letter.   

Even so, the group concludes that Brownley’s bill creates “one uniform policy for addressing all types of single-use bags to encourage consumers to use reusable bags, the most sustainable alternative.”   

The chemistry council commissioned another study in which reusable bags were collected at random from consumers entering grocery stores in California and Arizona. The study found “large numbers of bacteria” in almost all bags. Coliform bacteria, which normally does not cause disease in healthy people, was found in half the bags and e coli in 12 percent of the bags.   “Hand or machine washing was found to reduce the bacteria in bags by 99.9 percent,” the study notes.   

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider Brownley’s bill on August 2. If the committee approves it, the bill goes to the Senate floor. If approved there, it returns to the Assembly for a final vote before being sent to the governor.

The most recent analysis of the bill can be found here.