California advances grocery store plastic bag ban

The California Assembly on Wednesday approved a bill that would ban stores from providing plastic bags, and require them to charge for paper ones. Similar bans are in place in China and Bangladesh.

Paul Sakuma/AP
Grocery store clerk Mike Saladino bags a customer's groceries in Palo Alto, Calif., on Wednesday. A bill passed by the California Assembly would ban plastic bags and charge for paper ones.

California is poised to take the national and global lead on yet another key environmental issue: single-use paper and plastic bags handed out at grocery, convenience, and other stores.

The state Assembly approved AB 1998 Wednesday, which would require shoppers who don’t bring their own bags to the store to purchase paper bags made of at least 40 percent recycled material or buy reusable totes. The statewide ban, which would go further than plastic bag bans in at least five cities, including San Francisco, would be the nation’s first. It moves on to the Senate Thursday, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that he supports it – a rare revelation that could aid its passage, according to several observers.

(It passed the Assembly 41-27, with no Republican votes.)

Some 19 billion bags a year are used by California’s 38 million people. According to the bill's the sponsor, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, the state spends $25 million annually to collect and bury a portion of them. China and Bangladesh already have plastic bag bans in place, and the United Nations has called for the bans to go global. North Carolina has banned plastic bags on its Outer Banks.

“By passing AB 1998, Californians are signaling to the nation their commitment to wean themselves from a costly plastic and paper bag habit that is threatening marine life and spoiling the natural beauty of this state,” Ms. Brownley said in a statement. “Single-use bags are major contributors to marine debris, which has injured or killed 267 species worldwide.”

She calls the plastic bags “urban tumbleweed.”

Environmental groups have enthusiastically welcomed the idea of a bag ban.

“Clearly this is the right thing to do regarding the environment and ocean life,” says Wade Crowfoot, a senior analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). He notes the growth of the great pacific garbage patch, a vortex of plastic trash that many scientists suggest extends over a very wide area of ocean – with estimates ranging from an area the size of Texas to larger than the continental United States.

“There is undeniable evidence that these plastic bags negatively impact ocean life because they don’t break down. They hurt marine life,” he says.

Mr. Crowfoot was an aide to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom when the city became the nation's first to ban plastic bags in 2007. He said the ban resulted in the removal of 150 million bags a year – 160 per person – and that the sky-is-falling predictions by opponents, over cost and inconvenience, did not materialize. “There were minimal complaints once this got going,” Crowfoot says.

“We are very happy about this development,” concurs Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that the California legislation could become a model for the nation. Although several cities already had such legislation and others were considering it, she and others point out that AB 1998 creates the kind of uniformity needed by chains with stores in more than one locale.

“This offers a consistent, statewide approach so that everyone can know what to expect and [it] creates consistency for those businesses which span communities,” she says.

The American Chemistry Council has come out against the measure in a statement:

“The last thing California consumers need right now is to have what amounts to a $1 billion tax added to their grocery bills,” the group’s senior director, Tim Shestek, said in a statement. He added, “It’s astounding to think the Legislature is seriously considering creating a new $1 million bureaucracy to monitor how people choose to pack their groceries.”

However, EDF’s Crowfoot points out that “small companies and startups came out of the woodwork to create reusable bags which catalyzed new jobs and companies,” in the wake of the San Francisco law.

What helped the bill pass, say observers, was the California Grocers’ Association (CGA) support of it.

“We thought it was advisable that the state do something statewide rather than rely on a patchwork of similar laws, however well intentioned,” says Dave Heylen spokesman for CGA.


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