California Assembly Votes to Ban Plastic Shopping Bags

Published August 3, 2010

Californians are about the lose the freedom to use disposable plastic shopping bags, as a bill to ban the bags is making its way through the legislature with the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). 

Democrats Only
The state Assembly passed Assembly Bill 1998, introduced by Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), by a vote of 41-27. All 41 votes came from Democrats, with Republicans united in opposition. The Senate appears likely to pass the bill, also.

The legislation would require shoppers to use reusable bags or purchase paper bags, made out of at least forty percent recycled material, costing at least five cents per bag. If the bill passes, California will be the first state to enact a statewide plastic bag ban.

Environmental Motivation
Brownley says environmental concerns justify the ban.

“Californians use 19 billion plastic bags a year, and only 5 percent of those are recycled through the current in-store recycling program. Many bags wind up in the ocean, where they threaten our fisheries by injuring or killing marine life, or they blow on land like urban tumbleweeds, costing the state more than $25 million a year to collect them and transport them to landfills.

“We shouldn’t be paying that, especially at one of the worst fiscal crises we’ve ever seen. AB 1998 would ban all single-use carryout bags to encourage shoppers to switch to reusable bags,” she added.

Others, however, describe the bill as excessive and unnecessary.

“We’re opposed to this bill because we frankly think there is a better way to go about addressing this issue than taxes or an onerous ban,” said Tim Shestek, senior director of Western region state affairs for American Chemistry Council.

Retailers Support the Bill
Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the California Grocers Association, said grocers fear patchwork local bans. AB 1998 will preempt any local counties or municipalities from enacting their own ordinance of a bag ban or carryout bag restriction, said Heylen.

“Most of our retailers do business in multiple cities, multiple counties,” Heylen said. “It can make it very difficult if one county or jurisdiction has one bag ordinance and then another has a different one, and one allows plastic, another one doesn’t allow plastic, one has a fee, the other one doesn’t have a fee.”

Sestak said it is no surprise grocers and other retailers support the bill.

“This money that’s being generated is being retained by the stores. None of the money is going to any state or local government activity for environmental purposes. I think it all boils down to the same thing: that grocery costs are going to go up for folks who don’t happen to bring their reusable bag that day and are forced to buy a bag that normally is provided by the stores,” Shestek said.

Shoppers Will Pay More
Brownley said her bill will not add costs to locally owned mom-and-pop stores.

“Most mom-and-pop stores offer both plastic and paper bags. Paper bags typically cost stores between 5 cents and 8 cents each. Switching to reusable bags will save small, independently owned stores time and money now spent in providing single-use bags. That is one reason why the Neighborhood Market Association supports my bill,” she said.

Sestak noted the bill redistributes money from consumers to retailers.

“We’ve estimated that if folks just switch over to paper bags, we’re looking at about $950 million to potentially a billion dollars in new grocery costs for consumers if they have to pay at least a nickel per paper bag,” said Shestek.

Brownley argues consumers will also benefit from the proposed restrictions.

“Many of these reusable bags are being given away free or are available for less than a dollar. So when you weigh the costs to taxpayers of disposing of all those single-use bags against the minor costs of reusable bags, which hold much more than your typical doubled plastic bags, it makes better economic and environmental sense to switch to reusable bags,” Brownley argued.

Voluntary Recycling Programs
Shestek notes many retailers have shopping bag recycling programs, and these programs have seen a steady increase in collected bags.

Voluntary recycling programs, said Shestak, are “the most appropriate way to handle this issue of bag litter and disposal, rather than creating a new bureaucracy to oversee how Californians bag their groceries. From our standpoint it seems to be a more business- and consumer-friendly approach than what’s being proposed in this bill.”

Health Risks Noted
Tom Tanton, president of T2 & Associates, an energy consulting firm, agrees with Shestak.

“It is appalling that in the midst of a $20 billion state budget deficit and a budget that is likely to be at least two months overdue, legislators waste precious time on such things as this,” said Tanton. “No wonder their approval [ratings are] near single digits.”

Reusable shopping bags pose health risks, Tanton explained, as harmful bacteria can build up and contaminate newly purchased food.

“Once again, new rules and regulations are put in place before they are thought through. Reusable grocery bags are likely to have some cross-contamination issues, but the response of California’s legislature is then more likely to require certified cleaning—with yet another bureaucracy—between shopping trips, rather than just allowing [shoppers to use] disposable and biodegradable shopping bags, including those made with bioproducts,” Tanton observed.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.