Bagging an opportunity

California lost a tremendous opportunity last week when AB 2058 was quietly shelved in a state Senate committee. The bill would promote the use of reusable bags by placing a 25-cent fee on each plastic and paper bag consumers use at stores. Such a fee would encourage consumers to use their own reusable bags, which would save families money, protect our oceans and reduce global warming.

While the measure was broadly supported by environmentalists, local governments in California and several stores, plastic bag manufacturers spent tons of money running a negative ad campaign to protect their profits generated by manufacturing the 19 billion plastic bags used in California each year. Charging consumers to use these disposable bags would encourage them to bring their own reusable bags, but the manufacturers falsely alleged that the bill would increase grocery bills by nearly $5 billion every year because families are not savvy enough to use reusable bags.

Contrary to industry claims, bringing your own bag produces significant economic and environmental benefits. Families are now paying twice for using plastic and paper bags -- through higher grocery bills (costs are embedded in food prices) and government taxes and fees. About $375 million each year is spent in California on cleanups and other efforts to mitigate the environmental effect of disposable bags, costing each household about $200.

Let us not forget that it takes oil to manufacture and transport these bags. More than 3 million barrels of oil every year go toward producing the plastic bags Californians use. That amount of oil, using current prices, costs hundreds of millions of dollars. In this time of protecting our coastline from offshore drilling and reducing our dependence on foreign oil, we need to incrementally change the way we do things.

Say saving money and protecting California’s coastline don’t persuade you to bring your own bags. Then think about protecting marine life. For example, sea turtles often mistake littered plastic bags for jellyfish. Indeed, turtles are often found chewing on plastic bags. Once they swallow them, the bags artificially fill their stomachs, so they can’t consume any more food.

Nations around the world have shown that a fee-per-bag policy can reduce bag use by 90% overnight. Such a reduction would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lower grocery bills and tax expenditures. In this time of economic uncertainty, we need to champion AB 2058, not shelve it. The bill would require that all revenues from the fee be used for litter cleanup activities, providing free, reusable bags to low-income families and implementation of programs to reduce global warming.

Last year, IKEA became the first major company to adopt a fee, and last month, Seattle passed an ordinance requiring stores there to impose a 20-cent charge on disposable bags. If California wants to remain the nation’s environmental leader while thoughtfully tackling our budget woes, we should follow Seattle’s and IKEA’s leads. Our residents are clamoring for such vision, and our precious marine life will thank us for it.

It is not too late for the Legislature to reconsider its action. Contact Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata at (916) 651-4009, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass at (916) 319-2047, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at (213) 897-0322.

Supervisors Yvonne B. Burke and Zev Yaroslavsky represent Los Angeles County’s 2nd District and 3rd District, respectively.