Bill would ban free bags at California's grocery stores

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Besides grocery carts and checkstands, California's supermarket shopping experience is marked by a short and simple question: Paper or plastic?

Soon the answer may be neither.

California would become the first state to ban grocery, liquor and drugstores from providing free paper or plastic bags under legislation pushed by Democrats and supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The goal is to fight litter and lighten the load on landfills by getting shoppers to use reusable fabric bags. Those who don't could buy paper bags for a nickel or more.

"I think the proliferation of plastic bags is unnecessary, and it's a pollutant, an urban tumbleweed," Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley said of the lightweight bags that can litter yards and clog waterways.

Californians use about 19 billion plastic bags a year, about 552 bags apiece, according to a legislative committee analysis of Brownley's proposal, Assembly Bill 1998.

Tim Shestek of the American Chemistry Council said the plastic bag industry would rather pay to bolster recycling programs than ban plastic bags.

With California's economy struggling, it makes no sense to jeopardize about 500 plastic-bag manufacturing jobs and to promote paper bags that produce more greenhouse gas during their lifecycle than plastic bags do, Shestek said.

"We frankly think this is a dangerous precedent for the state to be setting," he said.

The crackdown on disposable bags would cost an estimated $1.5 million the first year and $1 million annually to launch, administer and enforce, payable from fees on makers of reusable bags.

AB 1998 was approved by the state Assembly this month on a party-line vote, 42-27, with Republicans opposed. It is pending in the Senate.

Schwarzenegger praised the bill when it cleared the lower house, calling it "a great victory for our environment."

Shoppers outside a Raley's grocery store in West Sacramento had mixed feelings.

Tony Bobbitt, 23, said his family occasionally uses plastic grocery bags as trash-can liners, but usually they just get discarded.

"Personally, I think it's a good idea," he said of the ban. "Plastic, paper — it's a lot of waste."

Brian Snider, 48, turned thumbs down.

"They're charging for everything, the government," he said. "It's getting worse than a bank."

No state has restricted disposable bags, but some cities and foreign nations have.

Ireland shoppers pay 33 cents per plastic bag. San Francisco's supermarkets and pharmacies are prohibited from providing plastic bags. And in Washington, D.C., shoppers pay a 5-cent surcharge on paper and plastic bags at grocery and retail stores.

The California Grocers Association supports AB 1998 because it would set a statewide standard — pre-empting local ordinances — and would apply equally to grocers of all sizes, spokesman Dave Heylen said.

Shoppers can buy reusable fabric bags now for about a dollar, perhaps more, depending on size and type of fabric used.

Tens of thousands of plastic bags were among 1.4 million pounds of debris retrieved during an annual cleanup of California beaches and waterways last year, said Eben Schwartz, outreach manager for the California Coastal Commission.

Sixty percent to 80 percent of all marine debris is plastic, which can harm hundreds of wildlife species if they eat or get tangled in it, according to the state's Ocean Protection Council.

"When those bags are floating around in the marine environment, they tend to mimic food," said Mark Murray of Californians Against Waste. "So marine life, whether it's birds or sea turtles, will consume the bags thinking they're prey."

Jon Coupal, of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the bill would have little effect on ocean debris.

Other states and nations would not be affected by the ban on plastic bags, nor would California's fast-food, clothing, hardware, department or other outlets that routinely use such bags.

"It's simply another example of nanny government overreaching," Coupal said.


Brownley said existing recycling programs have not fared well, attracting only a tiny percentage of plastic bags, so expanding them is impractical. Shoppers could easily avoid the proposed nickel-a-bag charge simply by keeping a reusable bag, she said.

Opponents counter with a study by university researchers, funded by the American Chemistry Council, which suggests that reusable bags pose health risks. Ninety-seven percent of reusable bag users fail to wash them, and 51 percent of bags carried food-borne bacteria, the study found.


(c) 2010, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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