Californians should pat themselves on the back for passing Proposition 67, ratifying the 2014 state law banning retailers from handing out single-use plastic bags at the checkout. This is the first state to take such a bold stand against plastic waste and, with luck, it won’t be the last.
Good riddance to 15 billion pieces of bad rubbish every year. Now comes the hard part, at least for roughly half the state’s population living in communities that didn’t have a local bag ban in place before Nov. 8. Shopping without free bags will be an adjustment, particularly on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, which is the busiest day of the year for the state’s grocery stores. But as Angelenos can attest, life without the ubiquitous, flimsy, disposable “T-shirt” bags isn’t a hardship. It will become second nature to bring reusable bags on shopping trips, and retailers will usually have paper bags available for a small fee.
But ensuring the statewide ban has a meaningful impact on reducing plastic bag waste will take more than just marking the appropriate bubble on the ballot on election day. The choices made now by consumers, and to some extent retailers and grocers, will determine whether the ban turns back the tide of plastic bag litter that ends up in gutters, wild places and, most troublingly, oceans.
There’s still plenty of plastic involved in the average grocery shopping experience. Plastic bags for produce and dripping meats, for example, are exempt from the law. Also, the certified reusable bags offered in the checkout lines by some retailers and grocers include thicker, slick plastic bags that look strikingly similar to the flimsy versions. This is fine to help consumers make the transition, but if shoppers simply switch to these thicker bags and treat them the same as the flimsy single-use bags — tossing them instead of recycling them — it could make matters worse as they contain even more plastic.
Nor is it cost-effective. A few 10-cent bags each shopping trip may not seem like much at the time, but it can add up. The Food Marketing Institute estimates the primary shopper in a household goes to the grocery store 1.5 times a week. The better solution is for consumers to eschew these thicker lookalikes and invest in bags made of materials such as canvas, cotton, nylon fiber or even woven plastic. They cost more upfront, but can last for years with the proper care and cleaning.
Transitioning away from the “paper or plastic?” days may seem like an inconvenience, but it’s the right thing to do for the environment. Make it count by embracing the spirit of the plastic ban, and not just swapping one plastic bag for another.