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.
A 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.