The California Legislature has once again failed the people of California, this time by passing a draconian plastic bag ban i.e. SB-270). This legislation would ban the distribution of thin-film plastic carryout bags by grocery and convenience stores and impose a minimum fee of 10-cents per store provided paper or reusable bag. The intent of the fee is to change shopper behavior by using a punitive financial incentive to coerce shoppers into bringing and using their own reusable bags. The legislature could have passed a much simpler solution that would have received a much greater and widespread public support and would not have involved changing shopper behavior or imposing bag fees while at the same time solving the plastic bag litter problem.
Plastic Bag Litter Problem
Proponents of bag bans have long complained that the thin-film plastic grocery bags are a litter problem because they so easily become airborne and are driven by breezes and end up in creeks, rivers, on beaches, and get stuck on bushes, trees, shrubs, and fences. In addition, these thin-film plastic bags get into the storm drain system and are flushed out into the river with the next rain storm and then continue on their way to the ocean where they can potentially harm wildlife.
A Simple Solution
The problem with thin-film plastic carryout bags, highlighted above, could have been solved by simply requiring that these bags be made from a thicker plastic film. For example, the “thick” plastic carryout bags made from 2.25 mils thick plastic film and also called a “reusable” bag is heavy enough to prevent it from becoming airborne or windblown litter and certainly will not float and go down storm drains and discharged into the river bed. Not only is this solution elegant and simple, it would not require shoppers to change shopping habits or pay a bag fee, plus the thicker plastic bag is fully recyclable in the At-Store Recycling Bin; whereas, most reusable bags are not recyclable. Many local jurisdictions have ignored this solution as well, even though some would allow stores to distribute the thick (reusable) plastic carryout bag at no charge while having to charge a minimum of 10-cents for a paper bag.
Another Simple Solution
Another potential solution is just to use paper bags instead of plastic bags. This solution was deliberately ignored using the excuse that the manufacturing of paper bags consumes more water and energy and generates more greenhouse gasses than the manufacture of those thin-film plastic bags (i.e. those plastic bags that are bad for the environment and must be banned!) As a result of this flimsy excuse, no environmental study was ever conducted to determine that using paper bags instead of plastic bags would result in a significant (i.e. class I or class II) environmental impact that would require a mitigation measure, under state environmental law, such as using a “reusable” bag as an alternative product. In other words, bag ban proponents by using a flimsy excuse defrauded the public out of a perfectly good and acceptable solution. Bag Ban proponents and sympathetic public officials lied to the public and others to pass bag bans that implement only the “preconceived solution” pushed by environmental groups without any serious consideration of alternatives, particularly solutions that would be more acceptable to the public.
Other More Traditional Solution Also Ignored
There are two other solutions that can potentially help to solve the problem with plastic bag litter. These solutions were never explored because the source of plastic bag litter was never addressed or seriously investigated by any local jurisdiction that implemented a bag ban.
Selective Distribution of Paper Bags
Most shoppers who purchase groceries for their households and who use plastic bags, transport the plastic bags filled with groceries to their home, where the bags are unloaded and the groceries put away. The plastic bags are inside the home and fully in control of the shopper and are not littered. Other shoppers, who purchase snacks and drinks to be consumed somewhere outside of the store and in a public area, improperly dispose of the plastic bag they receive and these bags end up as wind-blown litter. A simple solution is for a checker or bagger to issue a paper bag instead of a plastic to shoppers who purchase drinks and snacks. This would prevent a lot of plastic bag litter. Again, this solution was never considered and never explored.
Bagging Litter That Could Become Airborne
Another solution is to educate consumers to bag all trash that can become airborne when the curbside trash can is dumped into the trash truck and the truck is driving down the highway. This would include popsicles and candy wrappers, paper, plastic wrap, plastic bags, and other items. By bagging this material so that it cannot become airborne and blown by the wind, a lot of roadside litter will be eliminated. This is essentially the same solution that residents are required to employ when disposing of shredded paper from a paper shredder. Again, this practical solution was never considered by any jurisdiction.
The Preconceived Solution
The preconceived solution passed by the legislature in SB-270, and which mirrors many local bag bans, is not only draconian, but much more complicated than it needs to be. It bans the distribution of thin-film plastic carryout bags by grocery and convenience stores at the point of sale for the purpose of carrying purchases home. In addition, a minimum fee of 10-cents per paper or reusable bag (e.g. a thick plastic bag) must be charged by the store for no other reason other than to change shopper behavior and coerce shoppers into bringing and using their own reusable bags. This solution involves changing human behavior and shopping habits. Here are some of the characteristics Pro and Con of the legislated solution:
• Bans the free distribution of thin-film plastic carryout bags at grocery and convenience stores thereby reducing the quantity of litter attributed to this item.
• Imposes a minimum per bag fee of 10-cents for a store provided paper or reusable bag in order to encourage (i.e. coerce) shoppers into using reusable bags.
• Reusable bags are more durable and hold more than the thin-film plastic bags.
• The bag fee is kept by the store and used to pay for paper and reusable bags including the free paper or reusable bags offered to shoppers receiving public assistance.
• The bag fee is exempt from sales tax in order to avoid the limitations of Proposition 26.
• Thin-film plastic carryout bags are banned only at grocery and convenience stores thereby leaving other types of stores free to distribute thin-film plastic bags.
• Since not all thin-film plastic bags are eliminated, the impact on plastic bag litter is limited.
• Shoppers who forget to bring reusable bags or do not bring enough are punished by having to pay a minimum fee of 10-cents for each bag issued or having to go without.
• Bringing reusable bags into the store make it easier for the shoplifter.
• Bringing reusable bags into the store make it easier for a criminal to hide a weapon.
• Reusable bags if not washed on a regular basis can be a health hazard and transmit diseases of various kinds.
• Washing reusable bags uses water, a scarce resource that needs to be conserved since California is experiencing a statewide drought.
• Reusable bags must be inspected, folded, and put back into the car, after each use taking a few minutes of your personal time.
• Reusable bags hold more than thin-film plastic bags, and if filled, can weigh much more, a problem for the elderly, the handicapped, and shoppers who have back problems.
• Most reusable bags are made from cotton or non-woven polypropylene and are not recyclable; whereas, bags made from plastic film are recyclable.
• Two out of three customers reject using reusable bags and choose to either purchase store provided paper or reusable bags or to forgo bags altogether.
• Those who pay for store provided bags end up subsidizing the free paper or reusable bags given to shoppers who receive public assistance.
• Bag bans do not reduce litter and those jurisdictions that have implemented bag bans have not been able to reduce their litter cleanup budgets by even a single penny.
• The bag fee is a windfall to grocers who stand to make millions of dollars from shoppers.
The California Legislature could have passed a simple solution to the plastic bag litter problem that would have been barely noticed by consumers and would have preserved individual liberty leaving each shopper free to choose the type of grocery bag they will use to carry groceries home. The solution would have avoided bag fees; avoided the need to bring your own bags; avoided using scarce resources such as water and energy to wash and sanitize reusable bags; and avoided using your personal time to inspect, fold, and put reusable bags back into the car for the next shopping trip.
Instead, the legislature passed a draconian bag ban that implements the preconceived solution pushed by environmental groups and supported by grocers. A solution, not unlike local bag bans, that attempt to change shopper behavior by using a punitive financial incentive to coerce shoppers into bringing and using their own reusable bags. The draconian solution passed by the legislature would cost Californians more than $1 Billion per year in out of pocket costs and the value of one’s personal time and have a negligible impact on litter! The legislature did not do its citizens a favor by passing this draconian legislation and ignoring simpler and more traditional solutions that would have solved some if not all of the problems with plastic bag litter. The California Legislature earns another “F” for Failure to establish good public policy.
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