As it does each year, a bill to ban plastic bags in California will almost certainly come before the Legislature in the next session. Each year, under heavy lobbying by the makers of such bags — who say the bill will kill jobs and wreak other forms of havoc — the Legislature has folded. State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), whose bill in the most recent session failed by a narrow margin, has indicated that he plans to try again.
California has a chance to do things differently this time, without the endless back and forth about whether the bans effectively reduce the trash that finds its way into giant patches of floating plastic in the oceans, and without disputed claims that California companies will go under. Because this time, it has the opportunity to replace conjecture with facts.
Close to 90 cities and counties in California have passed bans on plastic bags. Once the ban takes effect in the city of Los Angeles, at the start of the new year, such bans will cover a third of the state's population. Usually, the bans allow customers to purchase a paper bag for 10 cents or so; Padilla's bill would have done that as well. This means that there is now enough information to study, in robust and real-life ways, whether fewer bags are found on the beaches, an indicator of how many make their way into the ocean. Have cities and counties lost any jobs as a result of bag bans? How many?
We actually prefer fees on both plastic and paper bags. They have proved effective where they have been tried — there's simply a mental barrier to paying a nickel for a bag — and they give consumers more convenience and choice. But a ban on plastic bags appears to be the next best choice. It has been our belief that banning the flimsy carryout bags with handles will reduce the environmental toll on the ocean without significantly harming employment. (Other plastic bags, such as those used for produce or the ones that protect newspapers from rain, would not be affected.)