The San Jose Mercury News recently published an editorial entitled “Success! California’s first-in-the-nation plastic bag ban works”. The editorial claims that because fewer plastic bags were found during this year’s Coastal Clean Up day proves that California’s “grand experiment” with a plastic bag ban is a success. (Mercury News & East Bay Times Editorial Boards, 2017)
But is finding fewer littered plastic bags a real measure of the bag ban’s success? If not, how do you really measure the success of the state’s plastic bag ban law? Is success not determined by results and how well each of the law’s objectives are met? The answer is a resounding, Yes!
Success is defined as “The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” (Oxford Dictionary, 2017) Using this definition and assuming a narrowly defined goal to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic grocery bag litter, then the plastic bag ban could be considered “a success”. It could never be otherwise! After all, if you ban or sharply curtail the use of single-use plastic grocery bags there will be fewer available to be littered. Continue reading Is California’s Bag Ban Really a Success?→
Now that California voters have approved the statewide plastic bag ban; many consumers are now faced with the task of selecting and using an alternative method to transport their purchases home. All of these alternative methods are costlier, time consuming, and more inconvenient than the store provided paper or plastic carryout bags previously supplied through indirect cost.
Bag options available to the shopper are as follows:
Use No Bags. In past surveys, about 42% of shoppers chose this option. Either carrying their groceries in their arms or putting them back in the shopping cart to transport their purchases back to the car.
Use Your Own Plastic Bags. Use those plastic grocery bags you have stashed away and when they are gone, purchase your own plastic T-shirt bags. You can purchase a box of 1000 T-shirt carryout bags for between $10 and $25 either from a local distributor or from an internet store and are available in white or neon colors. Keep a box in each car you own and you will always have bags with you when you shop. Estimated yearly cost is about $45.
Use Store-Provided Paper or Plastic Reusable Bags. This option will cost you a minimum of 10-cents per bag. Estimated yearly cost is about $78. By reusing these bags a few times for shopping, you can cut down your out-of-pocket cost.
Bring and Use Your Own Reusable Bags. A wide variety of reusable bags are available for purchase from cloth to bags made from non-woven polypropylene and similar materials. Estimated yearly cost is between $250 and $300. The estimated cost not only includes your out-of-pocket cost to purchase and replace bags, but also includes the value of your time to manage and wash reusable bags.
Bring and Use Your Own Collapsible Crate. Several types of collapsible crates or baskets are available that can be used to transport your groceries to your home.
Chicago’s Plastic Bag Ban is truly a unique ordinance. While the ordinance contains features found in many other bag bans across the nation, some features such as a mandatory minimum fee for store provided paper and plastic reusable bags is not included. The ordinance can therefore be said to be customer friendly.
The ordinance was passed by the City Council in 2014 and took effect on 1 August 2015 for stores with a floor area 10,000 square feet or more and 1 August 2016 for stores less than 10,000 square feet. The ban is applicable to chain stores “that sell perishable or non-perishable goods, including, but not limited to clothing, food, and personal items” where “chain store” is defined as “three or more stores having common ownership or any store, regardless of ownership, that is part of a franchise”. The ordinance is not applicable to dine in or take out restaurants or any store that is not defined as a “chain” store. (City of Chicago, 2014)
Because the bag ban exempts any store that is not a chain store, as defined in the ordinance, one could conclude that the ordinance is also small business friendly. For example, a neighborhood mom & pop grocery store or a fabric store could continue providing their customers with thin-film plastic carryout bags.
Stores subject to the bag ban ordinance must “provide reusable bags, recyclable paper bags, or commercially compostable plastic bags, or any combination thereof, to customers for the purpose of enabling the customer to carry away goods from the point of sale”. (City of Chicago, 2014)
The bag ban does not specifically impose a bag fee nor prohibits stores from imposing a fee for store-provided paper and reusable bags.
According to the article “Six months in, Chicago’s plastic bag ban a mixed bag” by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, some stores are charging a 10-cent fee for store provided bags but most of the large grocers are giving away thicker plastic bags in place of the flimsy “T-Shirt” carryout bags. (Elejalde-Ruiz, 2016)
In a commentary published in the Chicago Tribune titled “Chicago’s misguided plastic bag ban” the author Erik Telford makes the statement that the bag ban is a “poorly designed policy gone awry” and that “the city took a half-hearted approach to regulating plastic bag use”. The author also points out that bag ban advocates want the city to add a mandatory minimum fee for store provided paper and reusable bags and one of the city’s aldermen even wants to increase the thickness of plastic reusable bags so that stores have no choice but to charge customers for them. In addition, the author’s summary paragraph says it all: “Chicago’s ill-conceived plastic bag ban is the latest reminder of the dangers inherent in big government programs. New regulations almost always have unforeseen consequences. Advocating for behavior change through force of law can easily end up leaving a city worse off than it was before.” (Telford, 2016)
In 2014, the California State Legislature passed a ban on single-use plastic bags which was signed into law by Governor Brown. Subsequently, the new law was challenged through the referendum process by the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA). The APBA collected signatures on petitions and a sufficient number of signatures were collected to put the law (SB-270) on the ballot for voter approval/disapproval.
If the law is upheld, the use of single-use plastic carryout bags would be prohibited and most but not all customers would be forced to pay 10-cents for each paper or plastic reusable bag distributed at the point of sale.
If the law is upheld, the law would create two classes of shoppers. One class of shoppers would have to pay the 10-cents bag fee for each store-provided paper or plastic reusable bag; the other class of shoppers would be exempt and receive store-provided bags at no cost. Customers who pay 10-cents each for store provided bags would subsidize the cost of providing bags to customer who are exempt from the bag fee. The customers who are exempt from the bag fee are those customers who participate in public assistance programs, such as food stamps.
Whatever happened to treating all customers equally?
The 10-cent bag fee is not subject to sales tax and the entire amount collected is kept by store providing a huge windfall to grocers. It should be noted that the law died in the California State Assembly, until the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Safeway struck a deal regarding the 10-cent bag fee.
It should be noted, that voting NO on this proposition will not repeal local bag bans. However, if voters reject the statewide bag ban, it will provide impetus to opponents of local bag bans and greatly assist in repealing them.
Proposition 65 is an initiative statute that would redirects money collected by grocery and other retail stores through sale of carry-out bags and require those funds to be deposited into a special fund administered by the Wildlife Conservation Board to support specific environmental projects. If voters pass Proposition 67 to uphold the state’s current carryout bag law, Proposition 65 would require that bag fees collected from shoppers be redirected to the state. Revenues are expected to exceed tens of millions of dollars annually. Revenues would be used for grants for certain environmental and natural resources purposes. If voters reject the state’s current carryout bag law, there would likely be minor fiscal effects.
A plastic bag ban does not produce any significant environmental benefits in proportion to the cost and effort expended by shoppers. In the article “Bag Bans – A Waste of Time and Money!” the author argues and demonstrates that bag bans are large on cost with negligible environmental benefits. Proposition 65 if passed would deny a financial windfall to grocers and instead put that money towards real projects that benefit the environment.
Most people believe that laws banning plastic grocery bags are all about protecting the environment from plastic bag litter that damages the environment and harms wildlife. However, the real reason for a plastic bag ban has nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with generating profitable bag fees and protecting those bag fees from being eliminated or eroded away by competition.
In June 2015, the Austin Resource Recovery Service released a candid report entitled “Environmental Effects of the Single Use Bag Ordinance in Austin, Texas” questioning the effectiveness of the city’s own bag ban. The report noted that the ordinance reduced litter from “single-use” or “lightweight” plastic carryout bags, but that the unintended consequence was an increase in the use of 4-mil reusable plastic shopping bags (disposed of after just a single-use), and the increased cost to consumers and retailers. (Waters, 2015, p. 28)
The primary goal of the Austin Single-Use Bag Ordinance was to reduce the volume of plastic carryout bags dumped in the landfill. The city’s own self-assessment reported that the weight of 4-mil plastic reusable bags disposed of by shoppers after just a single use was just as much as the lightweight plastic bags disposed of in the landfill before the ban. (Cape, 2015) In other words, the bag ban backfired and resulted in a much higher environmental cost. (Waters, 2015, p. 25)
Most plastic bag bans follow the simple formula of banning plastic grocery bags and placing a fee on paper bags in order to force shoppers to bring and use their own reusable bags. A bag ban is justified because littered plastic grocery bags are unsightly litter that can cause harm to wildlife through ingestion. However, absent from the discussion are three key issues: (1) the magnitude of plastic grocery bag litter; (2) the cost to consumers to comply with a bag ban; and (3) the impact on reducing litter, particularly plastic debris, that finds its way to the ocean and potentially causes harm to wildlife through ingestion.
When these issues are honestly looked at we discover that plastic bag litter is negligible and the cost to consumers is disproportionate to the results achieved. For example, plastic bag litter comprises only 0.6% of roadside litter of which about only half (about 0.3%) is plastic grocery bags. Hence, a plastic bag ban will still leave 99.7% of litter that must be cleaned up through traditional litter abatement methods. The effort to clean up the remaining 99.7% of litter could easily include the other 0.3% (e.g. plastic grocery bags and retail carryout bags) as part of the total effort. In other words, a plastic bag ban is not needed and certainly NOT JUSTIFIED for the small amount of plastic grocery bags littered in the community.
Furthermore, the cost to consumers to eliminate plastic grocery bags from roadside litter averages about 12-cents for each 2-cent plastic bag eliminated by a bag ban. Add to that the cost of plastic bag bans by local and state governments and costs incurred by retailers increasing the total cost far more than the 12-cents cost per plastic bag incurred by consumers! If you compute the annual cost per littered bag, it will be on the order of $250.00 per littered plastic bag per year. Obviously, this is NOT a good deal for consumers! So not only is a plastic bag ban a waste of time and money for the public; it is also a waste of time and money on the part of the environmentalist who promotes bag bans for such a miniscule reduction in litter, when traditional comprehensive litter abatement methods exist that will not only eliminate all plastic bags but also other plastic debris that makes its way to the ocean potentially harming wildlife.
On April 13, 2015 Arizona’s Governor Ducey signed Senate Bill 1241 that would prohibit cities, towns, and counties from passing ordinances that ban or tax the use of plastic shopping bags, Styrofoam and other containers. (Gardiner, 2015) (Rau, 2015)
The bill’s author, Rep. Warren Peterson, R-Gilbert, cited concerns that plastic bag bans and similar regulations raise costs and create a regulatory nightmare for businesses. He stated that he is concerned about economic freedom and that he supports the right of individuals to make their own decisions. (Gardiner, 2015)
The problem with clogging recycling machinery is real, but what bag banners do not tell you, is that banning plastic grocery (or carryout) bags will not prevent all jams of sorting machinery at recycling facilities or expensive breakdowns. The sorting equipment at these facilities are being jammed not only by plastic carryout bags, but by all sorts of plastic bags (newspaper bags, produce bags, frozen food bags) and plastic wrap (wrap from toilet paper, bottled beverages, bottled water, packaged products), and from all sorts of materials (blankets, hoses, ropes or other strapping materials) which are all responsible for jamming sorting machinery. (Terry, 2007)
Educating the public that plastic bags and wraps and other prohibited materials may not be put in the curbside recycling bin would be a much better solution to the problem. Furthermore, the public needs to be educated about bringing unused and clean plastic bags and wraps to the retail stores’ In-Store Recycling Bin for recycling vice the curbside recycle bin.
The City of San Jose, to their credit, is one of the few cities that conducted litter surveys both before and after the city’s bag ban. Results showing the percentage reduction of single-use plastic carryout bags (i.e. plastic grocery bags) as a component of litter have been cited by the city as proof that the city’s bag ban is effective. Likewise, environmental groups nationwide have touted these same results as a justification for promoting new bag bans and opposing repeal efforts. Unfortunately, the City of San Jose did not conduct litter surveys in a controlled and scientific manner, did not correctly analyze survey data, and did not put survey results into proper perspective. As a result, the data collected is unreliable for computing a meaningful figure of merit, such as the percent reduction in plastic carryout bag litter resulting from the city’s plastic bag ban.
Yet, despite these shortcomings, the litter surveys did reveal several surprising facts that have escaped the notice of city officials, the media, and those in other cities who cite San Jose’s claims:
That only half of ALL plastic bag litter found in sampled areas on city streets and creeks consists of single-use plastic carryout bags; hence, a bag ban would at most eliminate only about half of all plastic bag litter.
That only about 10% of litter in creeks consists of single-use plastic carryout bags; hence, a bag ban affects at most 10% of ALL litter in creeks, leaving the remaining 90% unresolved. Therefore, all of the cost and cleanup efforts still need to be implemented since this will not meet the 100% reduction goal required under the federal Clean Water Act.
That the number of single-use plastic carryout bags found during all of the litter surveys in 2009, 2010, and 2011 (prior to the bag ban) average only 1,000 bags per year, or less than 1 for every 1,000 people, or the equivalent of what two (2) people out of a population of more than 1 million would use annually!
The use of unreliable and questionable survey data to project large percentage reductions of an insignificant number of littered plastic grocery bags combined with a complete lack of evidence of any cost savings to the city or to the people show that the bag ban was never justified from the beginning, and that the ongoing cost burden to San Jose families is likewise unjustified.
On February 24, 2015 the California Secretary of State, Mr. Alex Padilla, certified that the referendum to Overturn California’s Statewide Ban on Plastic Grocery Bags qualified for the 2016 ballot and will be decided by voters. The irony of ironies is that the California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who as legislator had championed the plastic bag ban, had to certify that sufficient valid signature were collected by referendum proponents to put it on the ballot! A total of 809,810 signatures were submitted by referendum proponents and county registrars projected that 598,684 signatures were valid based upon random sampling. A total of 504,760 valid signatures were needed with 93,924 signatures over and above the quantity needed.
Although, more than 100 jurisdictions within the state have implemented bag bans, they were implemented largely by nanny-state politicians, who thought it more important to be politically correct and be seen as “green” than doing the right thing. In fact, in every jurisdiction that has a plastic bag ban in the state of California, the bag ban was implemented by local politicians, rather than by a vote of the people. The referendum will finally give ordinary citizens the chance to vote up or down on the statewide bag ban.
It should be stated that plastic grocery bag litter is an insignificant litter problem that can easily be handled by more traditional litter abatement methods than by imposing draconian bag bans. In the article “San Jose Discovers Bag Ban Does Not Solve Litter Problems” we show that San Jose’s bag ban was useless in terms of reducing overall litter and in an upcoming article, we will show that San Jose’s own litter surveys show that plastic grocery bag litter to be an insignificant problem.