California becomes first in nation to ban plastic bags at stores

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law Tuesday legislation that will prohibit large grocery stores from offering single-use plastic bags to consumers, starting next July. Other restrictions will also phase in.

Mike Blake/Reuters
A shopper carries groceries in plastic bags in San Diego, September 30. Single-use plastic bags are set to disappear from California grocery stores over the next two years under a first-in-the-nation state law signed on Tuesday by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, despite opposition from bag manufacturers.

"Paper or plastic?" is not a question California grocery shoppers will soon be hearing. 

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law Tuesday legislation that will ban single-use plastic bags in the state, making it the first state in the nation to do so. The move is designed to combat litter and environmental degradation. 

"This bill is a step in the right direction – it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself," Governor Brown said in a statement. "We're the first to ban these bags, and we won't be the last." 

The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D), goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015. Beginning next July, the law will prohibit large grocery stores from offering single-use plastic bags to consumers, while paper bags will be offered only for a price of 10 cents or more. A year later, the law will also apply to smaller convenience stores and pharmacies. As part of the law, stores will also be allowed to provide customers with reusable film grocery bags as long as they meet certain requirements for recycled materials, also for a minimum of 10 cents.

For low-income customers who qualify for supplemental food programs, the law will allow stores to provide them with a reusable or recycled bag at no cost. 

Proponents of the new legislation include labor unions, retail lobbies, and environmental groups like the Sierra Club, according to Bloomberg. In 2009, California stores purchased about 53,000 tons of plastic bags, but only about 3 percent was recycled, according to CalRecycle

Activists have lauded the legislation for what they say are its long-term environmental benefits. 

"From the thousands of sea turtles that are now safer from plastic bags to the thousands of volunteers who remove these bags from our beaches and rivers, this bill means a cleaner ocean for everyone," Nathan Weaver of the group Environment California said in a statement. "I applaud Governor Brown for signing SB 270 and phasing out single-use plastic bags. Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our ocean for hundreds of years."

San Francisco and Los Angeles are among the more than 100 cities and counties in California that already have bans on plastic bags. Cities in other states with bans include Chicago; Austin, Texas; and Seattle.

Among the California cities already prohibiting plastic bags, San Jose has reported 89 percent cleaner storm-water catch systems and 71 percent cleaner creeks one year after implementing its ban, according to a release from Senator Padilla's office. 

"We're hoping to see the benefits that we've already seen in other cities and counties," Padilla said in a phone interview. "Literally overnight, we've seen environmental benefits from no longer having plastic bags polluting our parks and communities." 

But not everyone is pleased with the impending ban. Plastic bag manufacturers, which Padilla says have posed the largest opposition to the bill, have argued that such legislation would hinder, not help, the environment and the economy. 

Bag the Ban, a website funded by South Carolina-based plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly, argues that such bans are a "bad idea for America." The website says a ban and tax on plastic bags is "misguided" and could "weigh down the economy, increase costs for consumers and small businesses and leave a larger carbon footprint on the environment than alternatives." 

Also, a national coalition of plastic bag manufacturers, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, says it will seek a voter referendum to repeal the California law. It says the law will, among other things, hurt manufacturing jobs. 

"If this law were allowed to go into effect, it would jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment, and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets," Lee Califf, executive director of the trade group, said in a statement. 

For its part, the legislation tries to alleviate concerns over job losses by setting aside $2 million in loans to help plastic bag manufacturers change their operations to making recyclable bags. 

Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico have pending legislation that would ban single-use bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  

 Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. 

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