The “paper or plastic” era is, gratefully, on its way out. Over the last decade, more than 150 counties and cities in California have outlawed the flimsy, storm-drain-blocking, sea-turtle-choking, virtually immortal single-use plastic bags that grocery stores had been handing out at checkout lines like candy. Similar bans are sweeping the nation.
Two years ago, the Legislature passed the nation’s first statewide law forbidding most stores in the state from giving out “free” plastic carryout bags. (There’s nothing actually free about these bags. Retailers pay for them, and the cost becomes part of the overhead factored into the price of goods.) Under the law, if stores offered paper bags for carryout, they’d have to charge at least 10 cents except to certain low-income shoppers, who had to be provided the bags free of charge. It was huge victory in the struggle to turn back the tide of trash that is polluting open spaces and creating islands of plastic in our oceans. But it was distressing news to the makers of single-use plastic bags — so distressing, in fact, that four large out-of-state plastic-bag companies spent millions of dollars qualifying and campaigning for two measures on the November ballot that could undermine the ban, Propositions 67 and 65.
It’s clear why they would invest in Proposition 67. It is a referendum on the statewide ban. The mere act of putting the issue on the ballot effectively put the state law on hold; the ban won’t go into effect unless a majority of voters pass Proposition 67 in November. They should do so, enthusiastically. A ban on single-use bags won’t stop the scourge of plastic waste, but it’s practicable place to start.
And a necessary one. Americans use about 100 billion single-use plastic bags a year, as many as 15 billion in California alone. That’s down significantly from 30 billion a year before bans began popping up in cities across the state, but it’s still too many. Environmentalists put these single-use plastic bags among the biggest sources of litter.
The plastic bag industry’s arguments against a statewide plastic ban are weak, starting with the incredible claim — based on a few out-of-context findings in a British study — that single use-bags are actually good for the environment. They are not. The industry also says that disposable bags are more sanitary, and that the solution to the litter problem is recycling. It is not. Despite years of efforts, the recycling rate of plastic bags in California is about 3%.
Finally, the industry claims that the ban is a money-making scheme cooked up by the state’s grocers to line their pockets with the proceeds from the 10-cent paper bags. That appears to be the reasoning behind Proposition 65, which would require all fees collected for paper carryout bags to be directed to environmental programs.
On the surface this measure seems to complement the environmental goals of the bag ban. But coming from the same people so desperately trying to stop the ban, the measure seems more like a cynical ploy to confuse voters or, at the very least, punish the state’s grocery stores for supporting the ban.
The reality is that the fee for paper bags isn’t likely to be a windfall for stores that provide them. The California Grocers Assn. estimates that stores pay an average of 10 cents per paper bag. It seems reasonable for stores to recoup their cost when forced to collect a fee. The law also sets guidelines for how the money is used by grocers: to offset the cost of complying with the law and promoting the use of reusable grocery bags.
Furthermore, according to Los Angeles County (whose bag ban was the model for the state law), about half of the carryout bags are handed out for free, meaning grocers are collecting about 5 cents per bag.
But that’s beside the point, because the eventual goal is reducing the reliance on any kind of disposable bags. L.A. County’s experience indicates that it’s an achievable goal. Stores reported that after the ban went into effect in 2011, the number of paper bags used by consumers dropped precipitously, by about 40%. That shows a dramatic — and hopeful — change in consumer behavior.
To make it a reality, vote “yes” on Prop. 67 and “no” on Prop. 65. It’s time to tell plastic bag makers that they can no longer profit from polluting the Golden State.