California Strikes Down Proposal to Ban Plastic Bags

Lawmakers say the ban went too far in regulating personal choice.

August 31, 2010, 12:24 AM

Sept. 1, 2010 — -- After contentious debate, California lawmakers rejected a bill late Tuesday night that would have made the state the first in the nation to ban all plastic shopping bags. Opponents of the bill argued that the ban went too far to regulate personal choice.

The measure, AB 1998, which passed the Assembly in June, would have eliminated single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies starting in 2012, and in liquor stores and convenience stores in 2013. The bill, which was rejected by the Senate, was intended to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable totes.

Without a tote, they would have been able to buy one at the store or purchase a recyclable paper bag for 4 to 6 cents. Some California cities, including San Francisco, already have such a plastic bag ban in place.

Republicans and some Democrats opposed the bill, saying it would have added an extra financial burden on consumers and businesses already facing tough times.

"If we pass this piece of legislation, we will be sending a message to the people of California that we care more about banning plastic bags than helping them put food on their table," said Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who authored the bill, said rejecting the bill was a failure to the people of California.

"It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when consumers bring their own bags and become good stewards of the environment," Brownley said in a statement early Wednesday morning.

Brownley had been trying to pass legislation to address the problem for three years. She said the bags clog California waterways, pollute the ocean and have led to the loss of various species of wildlife.

"Plastic bags are a ubiquitous product," she said. "Consumers [have been] using it exponentially over the last decade.

"[California] uses 19 billion plastic bags a year. ... We use them for 10 minutes and it takes 1,000 years to break down."

She said it costs the state $25 million a year to to clean up the mess. "It's very difficult to really completely clean it up," Brownley said. "It's very easy for us to change our habits."

California's Plastic Bag Ban: David vs. Goliath

"We have the grocers, retailers, labor in support of this bill," she said.

She said that while environmentalists have heralded the bill for the past couple of years, grocers joined the fight last year.

"They decided this is something for them to join," the assemblywoman said. "[Statewide regulation on plastic bags] is good for them and their business model."

The American Chemistry Council was the ban's biggest opponent. "I can't underscore this enough. ... This is their battleground," she said. "The ACC is opposing this. Hiring lobbyists, showing ads, targeted radio spots."

Keith Christman of the American Chemistry Council said that more than 500 organizations and companies were against the ban. He said groups were concerned about the cost the ban on plastic bags would put on working families, specifically $1 billion per year to buy paper bags.

"It doesn't help the working poor who have to bring their groceries home" and forget to carry a reusable tote, he said. "Mandating isn't the best way to go. People should have a choice in how they bag their groceries."

Bill Magavern of the Sierra Club California said that California's recycling program, which is in its fourth year, is not working to reduce the amount of plastic bag pollution. His group's website states that fewer than 5 percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled.

"Most recyclers don't want them," he said. "They gum up machinery."

His group supported the ban. "This year's bill represents the best opportunity to virtually eliminate plastic bag pollution. It won't take away every plastic bag but it will cut down [their use]," Magavern said.

"One million seabirds and 100,000 other animals including sea turtles eat them or get tangled in them. Plastic bags use nearly 2 million barrels of oil to make them," he said.

Christman of the American Chemistry Council said his organization believes that recycling is the best approach. "Plastics don't belong in the ocean," he said, responding to concerns voiced about wildlife and the environment.

"We support Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Preventing litter," Christman said. "We worked with California state parks and others to put recycling bins in key locations."

Nationwide since 2005, he said, the recycling of plastic bags and plastic wraps has grown by 28 percent, according to a study by Moore Recycling Associates Inc.

He said that the American Chemistry Council worried that the ban would eliminate the recycling infrastructure and that it had worked with members to propose legislation to enhance the state's recycling program.

Plastic Industry: Workers Lose Their Jobs

Christman said the council was more concerned about the 1,000 Californians projected to be put out of work if the ban had passed, although that number was put at 500 by Brownley's office.

An amendment to the bill, added last week, would have provided $2 million in grants and loans to retain jobs in businesses making plastic bags so they could retool and produce reusable bags. A spokeswoman for Brownley said that she believed the bill would have created more "green" jobs as competitors came to California to expand their production of reusable totes. But, Christman said, workers want their jobs.

"Workers don't want training programs. With millions of people out of work," he said. "We don't need this today. They want their jobs."

Four cities in California have banned plastic bags: San Francisco, Palo Alto, Fairfax and Malibu. Elsewhere, Washington, D.C., now charges 5 cents for paper and plastic bags, and Austin, Texas, is debating whether to ban plastic shopping bags.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he supported the bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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