California set to ban plastic bags

Plastic bags from grocery stores and pharmacies would be banned starting in 2012 under a new bill before the senate. Critics of the bill say recycling programs, not bans, are the answer.

Paul Sakuma/AP
Grocery store clerk Mike Saladino places a customer's purchased items in a paper bag in Palo Alto, Calif., June 2. California is set to ban single-use plastic bags.

In a move experts say could domino across the country, California is poised to become the first state to ban single-use plastic bags. Approved by the state assembly in June, a bill to that effect is due before the senate on Tuesday, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he will sign it if he receives it.

The bill, which would ban single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies beginning in 2012, and in liquor stores and convenience stores in 2013, has met widespread acceptance, but is not without detractors.

Environmental groups are strongly in favor of the measure because of the growth of the "great Pacific garbage patch," a mass of non-degradable plastic trash floating about 1,000 miles off the coast of California which is said to be twice the size of Texas. California's 38 million people use an estimated 19 billion bags a year.

“This bill represents our best opportunity to virtually eliminate the plastic bag pollution that plagues our communities, waterways and beaches,” says Bill Magavern, Director of Sierra Club California.

The senate vote will be a close one, says Mr. Magavern. “The opposition [is] frenzied,” he says, “because they know a win in California would be replicated elsewhere.”

The plastics industry is working hard to defeat the measure. “This bill is bad for the economy and bad for the environment,” says Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which is heading the opposition.

A previous version of the bill allowed for a 5-cent fee that retailers should charge customers to cover the cost of a recycled paper bag. Mr. Christman says that Californians call ill-afford such a fee, as the state faces a $19 billion budget deficit and an unemployment rate higher than the national average. “This will put 1,000 workers out of work and add $1 billion to the grocery costs of working families who will now have to pay for something they once got for free,” he says.

The ACC has said that banning plastic bags does nothing to address attitudes toward litter, and it has pushed for plastic bag recycling programs.

Last-minute wrangling to get get the bill passed before the end of the legislation session has made it difficult to get a read on its exact language. This is only making the bill costlier, says Christman. “The bill is getting more expensive and worse with backroom deals,” he says. Legislators are trying to add measures to retrain workers who make bags, he says, and to monitor enforcement of the law. “Four days ago this was a $2 million bill. Now it’s a $4 million bill, which the state can’t afford when it is laying off policeman and teachers. These workers don’t want retraining – they want their jobs.”

Plastic bag recycling lacks the incentives of other programs, says David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, one of the state’s oldest and largest environmental groups. “There is not the high demand for plastic bags like there is for aluminum cans and glass bottles,” he says. “So only a few cities offer curbside recycling."

ACC’s Christman says that nationwide recycling of plastic bags grew 28 percent from 2005-2008, according to a study by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. Another study showed a 60 percent increase in Los Angeles County alone, he said.

The loss-of-jobs complaint is offset by the opportunity for small companies to create reusable bags, says Environmental Defense Fund senior analyst Wade Crowfoot. Christman counters that the majority of reusable bags are already made more cheaply elsewhere, whereas plastic bags are made in the US.

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