Charging for paper bags isn’t justified

Plastic shopping bag
A plastic grocery bag in the Calabasas landfill. Debate on a bag ban is fierce in the Legislature, which adjourns at midnight Sunday.
(Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times)

There’s logic missing in the battle of bags now raging in the California Legislature.

Flimsy plastic bags are evil, we’re told. They don’t biodegrade. They hang around forever, fouling the environment and gagging fish. They must be banned.

Paper bags are biodegradable. They eventually disintegrate and return to nature. Yet their use must be discouraged by charging shoppers for them.

The preferred bags? Thicker plastic bags peddled by stores. They’re reusable for awhile but also eventually pile up in landfills.


Or maybe a store-purchased cloth bag, a combo of petroleum-based substance and water-guzzling cotton. Let’s not even get into that environmental impact.

It all just seems like another nanny-state harassment of stressed citizens.

Now we’re being forced to keep our vehicles stocked with bacteria-collecting, reusable grocery bags in case we decide to stop at the market while fighting our way home in traffic.

Ban plastic? OK. Might as well outlaw plastic garbage bags too. And plastic cups.


But why shouldn’t shoppers continue to receive paper bags free, as they historically have?

There’s also an environmental issue, the nannies argue. Paper bags require the chopping down of trees. But so does home building. And printing newspapers. Never mind. We won’t get into that, either. Suffice that trees can be planted and harvested. We’re not talking old-growth redwood.

My 23-year-old granddaughter Georgia thinks I’m nuts. She likes her four reusable bags. Adapt, she says. Help nature.

But some people must be making money off this. Such as the grocers. Such as their unionized workers, who stand to share in the bag money at contract time.

“Follow the money,” as Deep Throat advised in Watergate. That’s always good guidance for watching a legislature.

The California Legislature must adjourn for the year by Sunday midnight. The bag battle is fierce.

Local governments around California, especially along the coast, have adopted plastic bag bans. The number is up to more than 100. They include Los Angeles, city and county; also San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Barbara. All but a few require grocers to charge at least 10 cents for a paper bag.

Legislation by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) would extend the ban to the entire state. Single-use plastic bags would be phased out.


After next July 1, they’d be banned from big grocery stores and pharmacies. After July 1, 2016, they’d be tossed out of convenience and liquor stores. Customers could get a paper bag, but not for less than a dime.

Whatever happened to local control?

For starters, banning single-use plastic bag — those with little handles — is politically correct, especially for any Democrat running statewide. Padilla is the front-runner for secretary of state in the November election.

Moreover, the big chains say they want statewide conformity, not a different rule every time their supply trucks roll into the next town. Many consumers also might prefer consistency.

But grocers really like the idea of collecting the bag money. And it’s a good bet the price will soon rise above 10 cents.

“We’re not making a profit off of it,” insists Ron Fong, president of the California Grocers Assn.

Grocers historically, however, haven’t charged. They’ve tucked the bag price into the cost of groceries, Fong acknowledges. Will they now lower the price of food because they’re charging for the bag? That one’s not a good bet.

Why not go easy on the shopper and just give away the paper bag? “We want to discourage them from using anything that’s not reusable,” Padilla says. “We want to control the amount being put into waste bins.”


But isn’t paper reusable? It’s also recyclable and bio-friendly.

Most of us don’t really care about the dime. But, a low-income mom shopping for a family of four who needs 10 bags just might.

The paper bag lobby is screaming. They fear their industry will lose much of its California market.

The paper people point out that none of the bag bucks will be used for recycling or any other environmental cause.

The reason is simple: If retailers collected the money and turned it over to government for an environmental program, that would constitute a tax. Then a two-thirds legislative vote would be required, meaning some Republican support. And it would never happen.

Plastic bag manufacturers have been screaming too. But some have been appeased, thanks to Senate leader-elect Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who orchestrated a clever compromise.

De León, who has two plastic bag manufacturers in his district, initially opposed Padilla’s bill. But he inserted into it $2 million from the state bottle-and-can recycling fund. It would be available for loans to makers of single-use plastic bags so they could retool for thicker reusable bags.

One L.A. plastic manufacturer, Crown Poly, still opposes the bill. “Plastic grocery bags amount to only 0.6% of the litter stream,” contends company general manager Cathy Browne. She’ll probably lay off workers if the bill passes.

Padilla dismisses all the grumbling.

“People adapt to bringing reusable bags to the store,” the senator says. “This is a proven model. It’s not a bill where we have to cross our fingers that it will work. We see it happening. The sky isn’t falling.”

The bill is awaiting an Assembly vote. If passed, it would return to the Senate for final action. Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t expressed a view. But it’s unlikely he’d veto the measure.

It’s probably inevitable.

But please, one favor: Leave my plastic monofilament fishing line alone. It lasts forever.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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