With 1100 miles of coastline, California experiences its share of marine debris. Last year during Ocean Conservancy’s 25th annual International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers in California collected more than 71,000 plastic bags in a single day. The conservancy’s marine debris index reports that plastic bags are the second most common marine debris item, following cigarette filters.
AB 1998 is just one of numerous efforts in the state to reduce unnecessary plastic carryout bag waste. In 2006, the state passed the Plastic Bag Recycling Act, a law that mandates that supermarkets and pharmacies establish recycling programs at stores.
The program which requires these stores to have plastic bag collection bins has experienced some success, speaking in terms of quantity. Only a year after the program began, the number of bags returned to the store increased from about 177 million to 327 million. The rate of bags returned to stores for recycling however decreased from approximately 5.4% to 4.6%, using at-store recycling report data from the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle.
With 4.6 percent of plastic bags being returned to the store for recycling in 2008, this means that well over 7.16 billion bags were purchased by supermarkets and pharmacies, and more than 6.83 billion plastic bags were not returned for recycling.
It is likely, then, that 6.83 billion disposable plastic bags will at some point be headed for landfills, not including the quantity of shopping bags distributed by convenience stores and other foodmarts.
Indeed, using numbers from a 2008 California Statewide Waste Characterization Study conducted for California Integrated Waste Management Board, now CalRecycle, about 7.24 billion plastic carryout bags from grocery stores were disposed, which roughly equates to a weekly disposal rate of 5.5 bags per person.
Concern about the billions of single-use plastic carryout bags still being produced and discarded despite gains in at-store recycling programs has prompted many city and county governments to look into more stringent measures.
After San Francisco successfully banned noncompostable plastic carryout bags from being used by supermarkets and pharmacies doing business within its city and county in 2007, at least 19 other local governments have looked into bag bans.
Of these, only three other cities – Palo Alto, Malibu and Fairfax – have so far been able to enact restrictions.
One reason local governments have not been more successful in instituting carryout plastic bag bans is the threat of lawsuits by the plastics industry. In many cases, municipalities have moved forward with trying to pass an ordinance without obtaining an environmental impact report (EIR). Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a public agency undertaking a project that may cause a significant change in the environment must prepare an EIR.
Industry’s general argument is that by banning the distribution of plastic carryout bags from some stores, the locality is undertaking a project that will increase the manufacture and distribution of paper bags. Since this may result in a significant adverse change in the environment, the locality should be required to prepare an EIR before adopting the ordinance or else be in violation of CEQA.
For smaller-budget cities that have considered plastic bag bans – including Laguna Beach, Solana Beach and Calabasas – the prospect of lawsuits and EIRs, which may cost around $100,000, are prohibitively expensive.
On the other hand, city of Santa Monica and Los Angeles County recently obtained draft EIRs, putting them one step closer toward enacting plastic carryout bag restrictions.
In the state legislature, AB 1998, the bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley that is awaiting consideration in the senate, is receiving broader support, particularly as a result of its latest amendment to include a minimum five-cent fee for recyclable paper bags.
The measure passed the Assembly floor with a 42-27 vote by an all-Democratic majority, barely making the required 41 votes out of 80 to pass. Only three of the 27 votes against the bill were from Democrats.
To pass the Senate, the bill will need at least 21 votes out of 40. Senate membership includes 25 Democrats and 14 Republicans and one vacancy.
Following the bill’s passage in the Assembly, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said, in a press release, “I commend the Assembly for passing AB 1998, which would make California the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags. This bill will be a great victory for our environment.”
California Grocers Association, which represents chain supermarkets such as Safeway (Vons and Pavilions), independent supermarkets and convenience stores, also supports the bill.
Because of the multitude of different local ordinances that are being considered or have been enacted within the past seven years, Ronald Fong, California Grocers Association president, describes a situation in which it is challenging for customers to understand why one store can sell paper bags, but the store across the street cannot, or why one store is charging a fee for bags, but another store is providing bags for free.
“Is there legislation that is perfect and will accommodate everyone? No. This bill supports the association as a whole,” Fong said. “The main reasons we support the bill are that it is uniform, it levels the playing field, and it preempts local jurisdictions.”
The local bag ordinances do represent a spectrum of regulations which may be difficult to keep track of.
City of Malibu, for example, prohibits the point-of-sale distribution of all plastic single-use carryout bags by any commercial or retail establishment, vendor, or non-profit vendor. Paper bags may still be distributed without restriction.
In contrast, San Francisco only prohibits noncompostable plastic bags from being distributed by supermarkets grossing over $2 million and pharmacies with at least five locations. Noncompostable plastic bags may still be distributed by other stores. If paper bags are distributed, they must be recyclable.
The Brownley bill – because it will preempt new and existing local ordinances – would make the regulation of carryout shopping bags uniform.
In opposition to AB 1998 is the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic bag manufacturers. In a press release, the group expresses concern about 500 job losses.
Generally speaking, “any part of the economy where technology or policy is leading to potential job loss, we as a society have a responsibility to help with the transition,” said Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, dean of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at University of Illinois.
Making sure dislocated workers receive the necessary support “certainly takes leadership from a number of fronts,” he said.
Clearly, creating legislation that balances the need to reduce unnecessary waste and litter with the need for decent jobs and not being unfairly or overly regulated is no easy task.
Although the bill’s passage is far from certain, the Brownley measure – in receiving support from large chain and independent supermarkets, a Republican governor, and some business and environmental groups – seems close to what may arguably be described as consensus. Hopefully, if the push for going green succeeds, the state will not forget to help the impacted workers.
 According to Food Marketing Institute, one plastic shopping bag weighs .24 oz.
 According to the report, 123,405 tons of single-use plastic grocery and other merchandise bags were disposed, 44% of which are from grocery stores. Food Marketing Institute reports that one plastic shopping bag weighs .24 oz.
 The U.S. Census estimates that in 2008, there were more than 27.4 million people who are at least 18 years old.