Single-use plastic bags — the kind with handles that you get, or used to get, at the grocery store — are an environmental menace. They end up draped across trees and shrubbery in wilderness areas, and are the second most common item of trash found on the state's beaches. From there, they find their way into the ocean, where they join giant patches of soupy plastic garbage. Dozens of municipalities in the state have stepped in to try to change this after the Legislature missed several good opportunities to pass a statewide law to reduce the use of the bags.
Eight years ago, the Legislature bowed to pressure from the plastic-bag industry and prohibited cities and counties from imposing fees on plastic bags. Faced with that restriction, environment-friendly municipalities did what they could: They banned the bags outright, while imposing fees on paper bags. Today, one-third of the state's population lives in cities that prohibit single-use bags in grocery and other stores.
In the municipalities where bans have been imposed, including Los Angeles, shoppers have had to put up with some inconvenience, but the sacrifice has been relatively small. Now the Legislature is finally following the lead of the cities it once tried to restrict with a bill that bans single-use plastic bags and imposes a fee of at least 10 cents on paper bags. The legislation, like the municipal ordinances, would affect only plastic bags with handles. Other plastic bags — such as those used to bag vegetables or to wrap this newspaper's print edition — would not be affected because they generally are disposed of properly.
The bill — SB 270, by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) — has flaws. For one thing, we still think it would make more sense to impose fees, rather than a ban, on plastic bags. That would give people who forget their own reusable bags a convenient option while still reducing the use of plastic bags dramatically. The fee proceeds could go to recycling or ocean cleanup projects.
Another problem with the bill is that it would allow existing city ordinances to supersede state law, even though part of the appeal of a statewide law is to bring uniformity to the system.
But the bill is definitely better than the continued dependence on plastic bags. Before the bans became common, Californians threw out 123,000 tons of the bags each year; the figure is still in the tens of thousands of tons. Padilla's bill would provide $2 million in one-time funding for existing plastic-bag factories to retool to produce reusable bags. SB 270 is scheduled to come before the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday. The Legislature has a chance to make up for its craven lawmaking of eight years ago, and it should do so.