Plastic Bag Bans Will Cost You

Forcing consumers to shift their behavior isn't cheap.

SACRAMENTO — When municipal officials started to impose bans on lightweight plastic shopping bags, it seemed like the latest attempt to inflict a little pain on consumers — a mostly symbolic effort to make us feel like we were "doing something" to save the planet.

But as a statewide plastic bag bill advances in the assembly, it's clear it also largely is about money — about protecting some industries and trying to shift around the costs of waste disposal and clean up.

S.B. 270 "prohibits retail stores from providing single-use carryout bags to customers, and requires retail stores to provide only reusable grocery bags for no less than 10 cents per bag," according to the state assembly's analysis. It also provides $2 million in grants and loans to help manufacturers convert their facilities and to pay for recycling efforts.

In his fact sheet, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, argues that 88 percent of the 13 billion high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bags retailers hand out each year are not recycled, that it costs the state more than $25 million a year to dispose of the waste and that such bags kill birds, turtles and other species.

Yet we all need to get groceries home from the store, so we must place them into some sort of bag. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, representing manufacturers of HDPE bags, sent around a different, heavier kind of plastic bag allowed under the bill. The group claims that it takes five times as much energy to produce these thicker bags that are similar to the kind used in department stores.

"S.B. 270 is not about the environment," the alliance argues. "It's a scam … to enrich the California Grocers Association to the tune of billions of dollars in bag fees at the expense of 2,000 hard-working Californians." Grocers could pocket as much as $189 million a year from the new bag fees, according to a bag manufacturer's study, although grocers dispute that and may face additional costs to revamp their checkout stands and to store and transport these bigger bags.

If S.B. 270 becomes law, Californians also will rely more heavily on those heavy non-woven polypropylene bags (NWPP) that stores often decorate with logos and sell for about a dollar. These are made from oil rather than natural gas, so critics note that a ban of lighter bags could harm efforts to address global warming.

This can get pretty confusing, but the main goal of S.B. 270's supporters is to force consumers to shift to something reusable, so that they toss away fewer bags. I take issue with the term "single use" plastic bags, given that most of us reuse these light, cheap bags we now get — to dispose of cat litter, to curb the dog during walks, to line our wastebaskets. It's hard to believe that the new reusable bags or paper bags will be reused a lot more than these supposedly non-reusable ones.

new study from the libertarian Reason Foundation notes that S.B. 270's supporters do not account for the energy use needed to clean the heavier types of bags and that consumers are unlikely to reuse them enough to pay for their additional costs.

The California Department of Public Health, Reason notes, warns consumers to clean and sanitize these bags frequently to avoid the outbreaks of food-borne illness caused by, say, reusing a bag that had been used to bring home meats, but has since sat in the hot car trunk. This means additional water, detergent and electricity use (not to mention time).

Reason wonders whether this effort is worthwhile. "Contrary to some claims made by advocates of plastic bag bans, plastic bags constitute a minuscule proportion of all litter," the report explains. Miniscule means about 0.6 percent of the nation's "visible" litter.

In an interview Friday, Sen. Padilla told me that this isn't just a new idea, but it's something that has noticeably reduced the waste stream in cities that have implemented it. He calls concerns about health risks "overblown."

If so, that's good news. But if S.B. 270 passes, Californians will face many new annoyances and costs, with Reason pegging the cost of California bag-bans on consumers at more than $1 billion a year. So at least no one can call this "cheap" feel-good legislation.

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  • some guy||

    Other great uses for "multi-use" plastic bags:

    - Padding for packages
    - Lunch bag
    - Car trash bag
    - Dirty clothes bag while travelling

  • sarcasmic||

    I had a short conversation with some of my liberal coworkers about the economic merits of recycling, and they said it didn't matter if it was an economic loser or not because "OMG LANDFILLS!"

    Unfortunately there are no rational arguments that can counter "OMG LANDFILLS!" because "OMG LANDFILLS!" is not a rational argument.

  • some guy||

    Well now at least you know your aren't going to miss anything important when you refuse to talk to them ever again.

  • sarcasmic||

    Oh I still talk to them. No choice really, it's a small office. I just refuse to talk politics or economics.

  • ||

    There are many things that fill up landfills more than plastic grocery sacks, but this is their totem and their sticking with it.

  • Sevo||

    "Unfortunately there are no rational arguments that can counter "OMG LANDFILLS!" because "OMG LANDFILLS!" is not a rational argument."

    Yeah, he's arguing for the 'health of the planet', and he's appointed himself the arbiter of what is 'healthy', 'cause it 'feels right'.
    You're arguing with his faith.

  • Ivan Pike||

    Unfortunately there are no rational arguments that can counter "OMG LANDFILLS!" because "OMG LANDFILLS!" is not a rational argument.

    Just tell them that you to extract methane from the landfills; why do they hate alternative energy??

  • Ivan Pike||

    *plan* should be in there.

  • sarcasmic||

    "Methane is a greenhouse gas. Why do you want to destroy the planet?"

  • Zeb||

    The methane will come out anyway and collecting it and burning it leads to net lower greenhousiness. And landfill methane is part of the natural carbon cycle, so it's a biofuel. Just keep repeating "biofuel" and maybe they'll catch on.

  • ||

    Or just ask if the source of the methane that's leaking out of the landfill is predominantly paper or plastic?

  • CatoTheElder||

    HDPE bags are actually good for the environment. HDPE is is an extraordinarily stable polymer that is approximately 80% carbon by mass. For every kilogram of HDPE that is landfilled, almost three kilograms of CO2 that would otherwise be emitted to atmosphere are permanently sequestered (i.e., 44 kg CO2/ 12 kg C * 0.8).

    If they were rational, environmentalists would love the fact that HDPE is landfilled. It's true that some CO2 is emitted in the production of the C2H4 monomer and HDPE polymerization, but it's a mere fraction of the carbon that is ultimately and permanently sequestered in landfills.

  • some guy||

    I do like the cloth bags, though because they are much tougher. I can put 25 lbs of stuff with sharp box corners in a cloth bag without worrying about a tear. Also, bringing cloth bags to the grocery gives me an excuse to bag things myself. This is important since 90% of grocery store employees will happily use 3 times as many plastic bags as needed while also dropping a gallon of milk on top of your eggs.

  • trshmnster the terrible||

    Agreed, cloth bags (when properly maintained and washed) are much more sturdy than even the best plastic or paper. I tend to rotate the cloth bags in and out depending on my need for plastic bags.

  • ||

    They're two different tools with two different purposes and, yes, bag boys are retards. A cloth bag (at least the ones around here) will handle a heavier load, but the wear out just getting carried around.

    I routinely stop in grocery stores, gas stations, etc. and buy one literal handful of items. When I get to the counter and pay, the cashiers will, routinely, take all the items in one hand, use the other to open a plastic bag, and put everything inside; as a reflex.

    Cloth/paper doesn't begin to address stupid.

  • thom||

    , bag boys are retards

    I rarely see bag boys anymore, which is the fundamental problem. I worked as a bag boy in a full service grocery store in high school and learned to pack grocery bags pretty well. Now the cashiers do it, and do it poorly.

  • albo||

    Do what I do. Just say "I'll bag," push your cart down to the end and do it yourself. I've found I'm faster and less likely to overload a bag.

  • thom||

    This is what I normally do, but at some stores they don't really separate the bagging area from the cashier area.

  • Zeb||

    I always feel like I'm getting ripped off when I bag my own groceries or use self checkout. That's part of what I'm paying for. They should at least give a small discount for using the self-checkout.

  • sarcasmic||

    Baggers at the stores I go to are pretty good for the most part. Except for the occasional EOE hire.

  • pingdragon||

    See it's nice when you have an option to use what you find works for you. This ban takes away that option. The only purpose is to make you pay for your own bags. Why would anyone want to pay more? Plastic bags can recycle, take up less space, have a smaller footprint. I can buy them for less than 2 cents apiece. 20 fit in the palm of my hand and use them in the store. Unfortunately this trend is now taking off the focus of recycling. Dallas Krogers have removed their recycling bins. Cities who have curbside programs that take plastic bags, shrink wrap, sandwich bags and other plastic in the blue bin have jumped on the "ban" wagon. Some cities are now working on taking away plastic bags for yard waste.

  • Paul.||

    As someone who labours under a plastic bag ban, I'll retell my favourite unintended consequences stories:

    I no longer donate to the charities at the checkout line to help pay for my 5cent bag fee. Foregoing a $1 donation pays for 20 paper bags.

    When I mentioned this on the Seattle Times comment section, the whole place lit up and went apeshit, some people saying they didn't want people like me living in their community.

    I told them that people like me ARE here, walking among them, living in their neighborhoods and driving on their streets...

  • CE||

    Charities at the checkout line? People donate to them?

  • albo||

    Bag bans are slacktivism at its best (worst). It's a no-pain gesture that sends the message "I care, and so am better than you."

    Those same people who so vigorously support it drive their filthy reuseable bags to the store by their gas-guzzling SUV. Dump your car and ride a big to Whole Foods instead.

  • albo||

    "bike" d'oh

  • Rhywun||

    I live in NYC, don't have a car - so I should be able to use as many plastic bags as I damn well please. ... Right?

  • albo||

    Go to town on them.

  • Rhywun||

    Damn straight.

  • AlbertP||

    Hey, this is California... I have been here most of my life. Spending one billion dollars of consumer's money to solve a non-existent problem is perfectly reasonable under California's concept of governance.

    My personal take: I think it is a "litter" issue. I think the leaders of these cities, who have the political influence, simply, don't like seeing the occasional plastic bag blowing down their crime-infested streets. And, since the threat of up to $1000 fines for littering doesn't seem to work to their satisfaction, they decide to hit everyone's pocketbook equally, since, as Orwell might chime, we are just "Boxer" to their "Napoleon."

  • albo||

    A lot of people I've debated on this issue invariably bring up the plastic bag litter as a reason. I live in a pretty large metro area, and I rarely see bags blowing around. Maybe some places need to enforce their existing litter laws and have clean up days instead of bag laws.

  • CE||

    Just give homeless people a few cents to bring them in, like they do with bottles and cans. Problem solved.

  • AlbertP||

    Yes to this! Kids would do the same....But that would require common sense and admitting that poor kids and homeless people actually exist in their utopia.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, it really works. I went to college in a state with bottle and can deposits and you could just leave your empties anywhere on campus and they would be promptly cleaned up by one of the local bums. Everyone wins. Except for having to pay an extra 30 cents for a 6 pack.

  • Rhywun||

    Why do we still have bottle and can deposits when we have to recycle everything else anyway? It's almost like inertia carries stupid policy way past its shelf life.

  • CE||

    The problem isn't that reusable bags won't get used enough or are too hard to clean. The problem is they get used a lot, and no one ever cleans them. Who wants to haul groceries in something that kicks around the floor of your car?

  • Zeb||

    People do.

    Anyway, focusing on the sanitary issue with reusable bags is silly and beside the point.

  • DWroblickiSr||

    This bill ( along with all the other asinine proposals ) will actually reduce the amount of garbage going into Cal landfills considerably by ny driving more clear thinking residents out of the state

  • pingdragon||

    Sad, but studies show that the ban does not reduce garbage. H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is one of the country's leading authorities on energy and environmental issues. The study he put out December 2013, observing the cities with the ban came to the conclusion that the bans don't work.

  • DWroblickiSr||

    Sorry .....scratch the " ny"

  • Mike S.||

    Humbly submitted for your perusal:
    CA Mulls Legislation Mandating..
    http://www.ego-vero.net/main/?p=1072

  • AlbertP||

    :)

  • roe3221||

    Its awesome.. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out www.Fox81.com

  • brobbs||

    Clearly a sign California has become too successful. Government encroachment is an awesome catalyst of economic correction.

    Hate it for all those poor people the state Demmunists claim to care about so much.

  • Frozen Costume||

    Tell local politicians to say NO to plastic bag bans today!

  • wanderlustmisfit||

    If you're a libertarian, understand this ideology affects only the federal government. The white house can't come and ban plastic bags, but if a city or state would like to, then fine, that's their business.

    The first time i voted it was for ron paul, but if the city i live in wanted to ban plastic bags, i'd be all for it. Plastic bags are obscenely wasteful. You have hands, and backpacks, and duffle bags. USE YOUR OWN BAG, DUMB@SSES

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