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California plastic bag ban: Will it get there this year?

August 31, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • Los Angeles shoppers discover reusable bags at a recent promotional event.
Los Angeles shoppers discover reusable bags at a recent promotional event. (Los Angeles Times )

Every year, it seems, the California Legislature can't bring itself to pass meaningful legislation to reduce the number of plastic carryout bags in the state. On year, in fact, the Legislature bowed to the industry and instead of allowing a small fee on the bags, banned cities from imposing fees on them.

That's too bad because, as the Times editorial board has pointed out numerous times, a small fee on the bags is the better way to go, as fees in such diverse places as Ireland and IKEA have shown. That way, people still have the convenience of the plastic bag if they really want it; at the same time, the prospect of paying even a few cents cuts down hugely on their use; at IKEA, the number of such bags used dropped by about 90% within the first year.

Those flimsy handled bags are a particular strain on the environment because so many of them find their way to the beach and ocean and become part of that gigantic soupy plastic mix called the Great Floating Garbage Patch or the Pacific Gyre (there's also one in the Atlantic). They're also swallowed, but not digested, by marine life, which can make it hard for animals to eat the food they actually need. And because the bags are so light and can be blown so easily by the wind, they're also a problem in various wilderness areas, where they can choke animals. The state tried upping the recycling of the bags, but it didn't work.

Other plastic bags, like the ones you put your vegetables in or get the newspaper delivered in, aren't targeted. Perhaps because they're not convenient for carrying things around in, they aren't found much on the beach, while the handled kind are the second most common trash item there.

In the absence of anything resembling real action at the state level, many cities have moved ahead anyway. Since they cannot impose a fee on plastic, they ban it altogether. Most of them then place a small fee on paper bags, so that consumers still have that option. Others ban all kinds of single-use bags, as do many places in Europe. Most notably, the city of Los Angeles passed a ban this year. Supermarkets would prefer to see a standard rule everywhere rather than this growing patchwork.

It has to happen today if this is to be the year. AB 298 would ban most carryout plastic bags and allow a fee on paper equal to the stores' cost. It would cost consumers very little, and they're already paying for the bags now in the form of costs rolled into the price of food. It's a pretty small way to make an important difference; the question is whether the Legislature has gotten the message that the anti-ban movement in this state isn't going away. Yes, it would be better to make it a fee on both, but more important is to move ahead.

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