Breaking Down California’s Plastic Bag Ban

Cooper HeadshotBy Cooper Wetherbee, environmental columnist

Starting midway through next year, customers at California grocery stores will no longer be asked whether they want paper or plastic. On September 30, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 270 into law, making the state the first in the Union to ban single-use plastic bags. By July 1, 2015, under the new law, all supermarkets above a certain minimum square footage must offer only recyclable paper bags to customers, at a maximum charge of ten cents per bag. The law delays the ban on plastic bags for smaller retailers, including convenience stores, gas stations, and liquor stores, until July 2016. Similar bans already exist in over 100 California cities, including Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but the new statewide ban is the first of its kind in the United States.

This legislation is a response to the growing movement aiming to clean California’s waterways, with efforts focusing on pollution in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River watershed. Although single-use plastic bags are recyclable, they are often improperly disposed of via conventional garbage or littering. When plastic bags enter a landfill, they can break down and release pollutants into local groundwater. When litter delivers single-use plastics straight to marine ecosystems, aquatic animals often choke to death or starve from a blocked digestive tract because of the impermeability of plastic waste. By removing plastic grocery bags from the waste stream, policymakers believe that they can reduce the amount of bags that end up at the bottom of the bay or in the digestive systems of birds, fish, and other marine organisms. The bill also aims to curb unsightly plastic bag waste in human environments, including coastal areas and public spaces. In a press release summarizing the signing of the new law, Brown stated, “This bill is a step in the right direction – it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself.”

Sacramento policymakers have been similarly enthusiastic, with many claiming the bag ban as a major environmental victory. Among members of the scientific community, however, considerable doubt remains regarding the environmental impact of a wholesale switch to paper bags. Several sources, including the EPA, the UK’s Environmental Agency, and multiple American environmental consulting firms, have published life cycle analyses that show plastic bags to be less water- and energy-intensive during production than their paper counterparts. According to an EPA study, paper bags require 70% more energy and 85% more water to manufacture than plastic bags. Plastic bags are also lighter, and more easily stored, which means lower transportation costs and emissions in the distribution process. Thus, the overall change in carbon footprint caused by a legislative change to paper bags from plastic bags remains uncertain.

SB 270 does not cite scientific literature that evaluates the costs and benefits of the ban. As such it remains unclear whether lawmakers sought scientific input on the potential impacts of the paper-for-plastic swap before voting on the measure. Regardless, the bill passed swiftly through the California house and Senate before being signed into law, with the help of a Democratic super majority in both houses. In addition to the backing of the California Democratic Party, the bill also received support from some Republican legislators in both houses, though the right wing initially offered resistance to what they perceived as an anti-business law with only marginal environmental benefits. In response, bill co-author Kevin de León, a Senate Democrat from Los Angeles’s 22nd District, made several changes to address hardships the bill would cause for the state’s plastic bag manufacturing companies, which would see their businesses effectively vanish starting next summer with the implementation of the new law. As a stopgap measure, the final version of the bill co-authored by de León and signed by Brown includes a $2 million loan program to assist plastic bag manufacturers by covering the costs associated with switching to produce reusable canvas or polypropylene bags that comply with the law.

In California, one of the Union’s most environmentally conscious states, Democrats have controlled both the Senate and the Assembly since 1970. During that time the state has become known for groundbreaking environmental initiatives, including pioneering laws concerning unleaded gasoline and automobile smog emissions that led to nationwide policy changes in the 1970s and 1980s.

If SB 270 succeeds at removing plastic bag waste from Californian waterways, it could add to California’s long list of environmental firsts, and serve as a blueprint for future bans on single-use grocery bags in other states. Several large cities around the country, including Chicago, Seattle, and Austin, have already banned plastic grocery bags. Statewide bans are currently under consideration in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

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