Editorial: Californians must show their resolve on plastic-bag ban

A man carries plastic single-use bags past the state Capitol in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Reducing air pollution, conserving water, combating climate change and preserving open space all require sacrifice, and in many cases they also require battles with entrenched industries whose interests are at odds with environmental goals. If Californians can’t manage to ban single-use plastic bags — taking on the industry that manufactures them and accepting the minor inconvenience involved — it doesn’t speak well of the state’s ability to confront the bigger environmental challenges that lie ahead.

Readers may be forgiven for believing that this issue has already been addressed: A statewide plastic-bag ban passed last year was set to take effect this July. But by spending more than $3 million, the bag manufacturers have managed to have that law put on hold -- and have placed a new measure on the November 2016 ballot to reverse it.

No surprise there; pay enough signature-gatherers and almost anything can be placed before voters. In future months, voters can expect an onslaught of advertising aimed at persuading them that the plastic-bag ban is a tax — which it’s not — and that the industry would face massive job losses without the bags. It won’t.


Voters must remember the reasons for banning the bags. Before any municipal bans were in place, the bags were ubiquitous, creating tens of thousands of tons of trash each year in this state alone. They’re still the second most-common form of garbage on our beaches, and from there — and through our storm drains — they find their way into the ocean, into the stomachs of marine animals and into giant patches of soupy, plastic garbage. Only 5% of the bags are recycled.

Under the state law, if it prevails, shoppers who forget to bring reusable bags can buy a paper sack from the store for a dime. The law only affects plastic bags with handles, not those used to hold produce or protect newspapers. The law set aside money to help bag manufacturers in the state retool to make reusable bags.

Just as Californians have adjusted to tossing cans into recycling bins, people in municipalities that have banned bags, including Los Angeles, are generally doing fine. The California Grocers Assn., which supported the statewide ban, could show the other two-thirds of the state — those not covered by an ordinance — that the big fuss is over very little, by encouraging their member stores to institute the ban themselves. Nothing about the referendum prevents stores from voluntarily getting rid of their plastic carry-out bags or charging 10 cents for a paper one. If the grocers are truly behind the ban, they’ll take the initiative.
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