Editorial: A Statewide Bag Law Is Best Approach

The Press Democrat

With council votes this week, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park join a growing list of California cities that outlaw plastic carryout bags.

About 100 cities and counties, with a combined population of more than 12 million people, have enacted bag laws. Still more are on the way.

The direction is unmistakable — single-use bags are going the way of leaded fuel and other products that pose environmental hazards or needlessly clog landfills.

Plastic bags do both.

Californians use about 14 billion of them every year, but fewer than 5 percent get recycled. Most bags get tossed in the rubbish or become litter. Plastic bags account for 2 percent of the waste stream and $25 million a year in collection and disposal costs, according to a legislative analysis. Discarded bags are a major source of the plastic polluting the world’s oceans.

From Arcata to Solana Beach, local governments have concluded that the best solution is banning plastic carryout bags.

With this week’s votes, all nine Sonoma County city councils and the Board of Supervisors have enacted ordinances. By Sept. 1, single-use plastic bags will disappear from local supermarkets, convenience stores and many other retailers.

Similar rules already are in effect in Fort Bragg, Ukiah and unincorporated Mendocino County.

But a patchwork of local rules — a possibility locally with Santa Rosa opting out of a countywide approach — is confusing for consumers and a nuisance for retailers. This is a statewide issue, and it ought to be addressed as such.

Bag bills failed in 2010 and 2012. Of the three bills introduced last year, one reached the state Senate floor, where it fell two votes short — with four senators abstaining.

The author, state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, says he’ll try again this year. His biggest obstacle may be fellow Democrats worried that a ban would cost jobs in Los Angeles-area bag factories.

That’s probably true, but the numbers peddled by industry lobbyists are overblown. Consider an independent estimate prepared for the Los Angeles City Council before it voted to ban plastic carryout bags. Net job loss in the city: 15. L.A.’s annual expenditure for picking up plastic bags: $2 million.
There are arguments against banning bags. They are convenient, and many are reused as wastebasket liners or to clean up pet waste. Produce bags, restaurant bags and other carryout bags exempted from these laws remain a litter problem.

The primary alternative — reusable bags — can harbor bacteria. Academic researchers found an increase in E. coli infections in San Francisco after carryout bags were banned, and epidemiologists in Oregon traced a norovirus outbreak to a dirty bag. Washing bags is a simple solution, but another study found that 97 percent of people never do.

These problems are comparatively minor and easy to solve. The costs and environmental hazards associated with plastic bags are well known and widely publicized, and recycling is easier than ever. Regrettably, too many people don’t bother.

That’s why cities and counties across the state are banning carryout bags. More nuisance than convenience, they should be banned statewide.

Reprinted from The Press Democrat (1/17/2014)