Paper or plastic? It used to be a simple – and free – choice.
But if Gov. Jerry Brown signs the plastic bag bill, California grocers, pharmacies, liquor stores and convenience stores will no longer be able to provide single-use bags to customers at no charge. They will be required to offer paper bags, reusable plastic bags and compostable bags for a 10-cent fee beginning next year.
Few consumer issues have been more polarizing. Hailed by environmental groups for helping reduce the 14 billion plastic bags that are thrown away in the state annually, and by municipalities that spend millions to keep plastic waste under control, it has long been opposed by plastic bag manufacturers, who say such bans threaten American jobs, as well as customers who enjoy free bags’ convenience.
The California Senate passed SB 270 on Friday 22-15 after it passed the State Assembly a day earlier. The governor has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill, which would make California the first state in the nation to enact a single-use plastic bag ban – and a potential model for other states, should the ban succeed at reducing waste.
Hawaii, too, has a statewide plastic bag ban in effect. It was not instituted by the state government but individual counties. Kauai and Maui counties instituted a ban on plastic bags in 2011, followed by Hawaii County in 2013 and Honolulu County, which has until next July to comply.
Massachusetts and Washington are considering single-use bag bans. Seven states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia, are weighing state-imposed fees for shopping bags.
California has a history of environmental leadership,” said Sarah Sikich, science and policy director for Heal the Bay, one of several environmental groups that supported SB 270. If the governor signs it, she said, “States throughout the U.S. could start to adopt similar policies and end plastic pollution.”
California is often a legislative bellwether on environmental issues.
The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, is credited with spurring interest in similar cap-and-trade programs in Oregon and Washington.
In 2006, California also adopted AB 1953, a bill that limited the amount of lead allowed in plumbing fixtures; the standard has since been followed by Vermont and Maryland.
“We feel relatively positive that Governor Brown will sign the plastic bag ban, given his history as a waste reducing and recycling activist both at the state level and in the city of Oakland,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste in Sacramento.
A non-profit organization dedicated to conserving resources, preventing pollution and protecting the environment, Californians Against Waste, first proposed legislation to reduce single-use bag waste in 2004. That bill sought to add an advance disposal fee on disposable plastic and paper bags, similar to what now exists for consumer electronics.
The idea was soundly rejected by California lawmakers in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Murray said. In 2012, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery mandated its At-Store Recycling Program, requiring large grocery stores and retailers to use recycling bins. But the rate of plastic bag recycling has remained about 5 percent.
Californians Against Waste pursued a new strategy, bolstered by data from the California municipalities that recently have instituted bag bans: 124, covering 35 percent of the state’s population.
Carryout bag use in L.A. County has fallen from 2.4 million annually to 165,000 since its two-phase, single-use plastic bag ban took full effect in January 2012, according to the California Grocers Association, whose 400 member companies representing 6,000 stores have had to scramble to meet the requirements of disparate laws.
“The California Grocers Assn. has been supportive of a statewide solution for single-use carryout bag regulations for nearly five years,” association president Ron Fong said in a statement. “Our only goal from the start has been attaining statewide consistency” to combat the logistical, employee training and compliance challenges resulting from the current patchwork approach, he said.
Los Angeles, which rolled out its single-use plastic bag ban in two phases, beginning Jan. 1 with large grocery stores and July 1 with smaller convenience and liquor stores, has just started gathering statistics about the ban’s success.
L.A. Sanitation environmental specialist Jinderpal Bhandal said compliance among large grocery stores is 100 percent. Paper bag use at large grocery stores has decreased 95 percent, due in large part to the 10-cent fee required to purchase them.
The ban’s ultimate goal is to encourage the use of reusable bags, Bhandal said, but it hasn’t been in effect long enough to measure to what extent that is happening.
Despite its apparent successes, not everyone is on board with bag bans or with SB 270.
While the bill provides up to $2 million in loans to businesses to help them transition to reusable bag manufacturing, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, formed in 2005 to represent U.S. plastic bag makers, opposes SB 270 on the grounds that plastic bag bans threaten 30,000 American jobs.
SB 270 is “silly,” according to Peter Paysee, vice president and general manager of United Polymers in La Mirada, a distributor of plastic pellets used by plastic bag makers.
“Plastic bags should be recycled or reused. It’s a far more environmentally friendly package than the paper bag that’s replacing it and/or the reusable plastic bag,” which is almost 10 times thicker than a single-use plastic bag, he said. The problem is “the recycling rate isn’t anywhere near where it should be or could be,” said Paysee, who suspects the low recycling rate lies with the plastic bag recycling system.
Many municipalities don’t accept single-use plastic bags in their recycling programs, and the plastic bag recycling bins at grocery stores are often difficult to find and plagued by the same behavioral issues as reusable bags: If perceived as inconvenient, customers forget to bring them.
Heal the Bay estimates that state municipalities pay about $25 million in costs associated with landfilling and cleaning up plastic bag waste.
A ban approved by the Laguna Beach City Council has been in affect since Jan. 1, 2013. Resident William Viglione said it’s become routine for him to grab a couple of reusable bags before leaving home for the grocery store. And for the forgetful times when he arrives without them, paying 10 cents for a paper bag isn't a big deal.
“I knew environmentally it was the right thing to do,” Viglione said as he loaded groceries into his car outside Albertsons on Pacific Coast Highway. “It hasn’t been that much of an inconvenience.”