Reusable totes -- it’s time

In many European supermarkets, the answer to “Paper or plastic?” is simply “No.” Single-use bags are banned; shoppers bring reusable totes or, if they forget, wheel their purchases out to the car and load them in the trunk.

California, in contrast, keeps stalling over proposals to eliminate single-use, plastic carry-out bags, even if a convenient paper bag would cost about a nickel. A bill to accomplish this much has been approved by the Assembly but needs to pass the state Senate by the end of Tuesday to make it to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has indicated his readiness to sign it.

As the Sacramento Bee reported last week, the American Chemistry Council and its affiliates, which represent petroleum and plastic bag companies, have recently showered key state politicians with campaign donations. In addition, the council has launched an advertising campaign criticizing the bill as frivolous.

It’s a strawman argument. Even in troubled economic times, Californians don’t have to give up on cleaning up the environment. A reusable bag that carries a lot more groceries can be purchased for a dollar and lasts longer than a year. A paper bag — made up of at least 40% recycled material and also easily reused several times — would cost a few cents. What few customers realize is that they’re already paying for the plastic bags; the cost is built into the price of groceries. If that cost weren’t hidden, more consumers would have switched to reusables by now.

The bill doesn’t target all plastic bags, such as the ones shoppers use to hold their fruits and vegetables — or the ones that wrap home-delivered newspapers. Environmental experts say the main culprit polluting our parks, beaches and oceans are the single-use plastic bags with handles — the ones that hold just a few grocery items.

Flimsy as the bags are, California generates 120,000 tons a year of this plastic, carry-out trash, less than 5% of which is recycled. Compare that with the plastic water bottles that have gained a reputation for their wastefulness. Californians use about 80,000 tons of them a year, of which 75% are recycled. In other words, the environmental benefit in a $1 reusable tote is potentially much greater than that of a designer aluminum water bottle.

These are the messages the state Senate should keep in mind as it considers AB 1998. The bill offers an inexpensive, convenient and effective way to prevent litter and ocean pollution and protect marine mammals that are known to ingest the plastic bags. That’s a great bargain even in a bad economy.