Editorial: Time Has Come For Ban on Plastic Grocery Bags

Banning single-use plastic bags is not going to save the environment. But it would help keep city streets, beaches and the ocean cleaner.

The state Senate, which stymied proposed bans in 2010 and 2012, has before it a balanced bill with broad support. When it comes up for a floor vote, probably today, senators should pass it.

Senate Bill 405, authored by Los Angeles Democrat Alex Padilla, would prohibit supermarkets and drugstores from providing the plastic bags starting Jan. 1, 2015. The ban would expand to convenience stores on July 1, 2016. Stores would have to offer reusable bags that are washable and don’t contain lead, or recyclable paper bags that typically cost 10 cents.

Environmental groups back the bill, largely because of the way that discarded wind-blown plastic bags end up in rivers and oceans, harming wildlife.

Significantly, the statewide grocers and retailers associations also support the bill. They want statewide rules rather than a patchwork of local regulations that make it tougher to do business and can put some stores at a disadvantage.

Already, ordinances cover more than 70 cities and counties in California, and that number is expected to continue rising. More than 400 communities with two-thirds of the state’s population don’t have such rules, however.

The bill wisely preserves some local control. Existing ordinances would remain in effect; if a local community wants tougher rules, it must adopt them before Sept. 1.

Sacramento is moving toward a local ordinance, largely in case SB 405 falls short. Endorsed by the City Council’s Law and Legislation Committee on Tuesday, it is similar to SB 405 and also boasts support from environmental and business groups alike. The major difference is that it would cover convenience stores sooner, on Jan. 1, 2015. If SB 405 becomes law, the council would have to decide whether it is worth passing the ordinance.

Environmental groups point out that Californians use an estimated 14 billion of these plastic bags a year – about 400 per household – and that less than 5 percent are recycled. Bags and other plastics are the primary component of marine debris.

Supporters of a ban also argue convincingly that the bags handed out at the checkout counter aren’t truly “free.” Shoppers pay for them in the price of products, and pay again to clean up and dispose of the bags – a cost estimated at $25 million a year for state taxpayers.

Not surprisingly, the strongest opposition to the bill comes from plastic bag manufacturers. Besides arguing that paper bags are worse for the environment, they raise concerns that reusable bags are a health hazard, pointing to a study that noted a rise in foodborne illnesses and deaths after San Francisco banned plastic bags. The city’s public health department, however, convincingly points out that the study is flawed and doesn’t prove that the ban was the cause.

On the other side of the plastic bag debate, some prefer an alternative approach, along the lines of Senate Bill 700, authored by Davis Democrat Lois Wolk.

Instead of a ban, it would impose a 5-cent tax on all single-use shopping bags – paper as well as plastic – to reduce their use. Grocers would keep a half-cent for administration, but the rest of the estimated $100 million-plus in annual revenue would go to local governments that don’t opt out for parks and cleanup programs.

However, SB 700 is opposed by the grocers and stalled last week in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Even if it resurfaces, the bill appears unlikely to get the required two-thirds vote in either chamber.

SB 405 is not perfect; it is a political compromise. But it has a fighting chance and is worth supporting.

Reprinted from The Sacramento Bee (5/30/2013)