Brownley's Bill Bashing Bad Bags

by Anthony Pignataro | March 2, 2011 10:18 am

[1]MARCH 2

Sometimes, writing about state government is too easy. No matter how dire the current budget crisis, or low public opinion of the Legislature can get, our elected officials continue to perpetuate The Nanny State.

Yes, I put it in all capitals because just about everyone in the Capitol plays his or her part in perpetuating the idea that government must baby citizens. On the right, legislators knock each other down trying to pass new social regulations and build ever more powerful law enforcers to keep us in line with their notions of civilized behavior; on the left, our lawmakers put the screws to business in an effort to make society ever tidier.

There are countless current examples of these efforts, but what most caught my eye was Assembly Bill 298[2]. This bill, introduced by Assembly Member Julia Brownley[3], D-Santa Monica, on Feb. 9, regulates the sale and distribution of reusable shopping bags.

It’s not a well-publicized bill. In fact, Brownley’s office hasn’t even sent out a press release advertising the bill because, as one staffer at her office told me, they didn’t anticipate much media interest in it.

“This bill would, until January 1, 2013, prohibit a manufacturer, as defined, from selling or distributing a reusable bag in this state, if the bag is designed or intended to be sold or distributed to a store’s customers, unless the reusable bag meets certain conditions regarding the cleaning and disinfection of the bag and the material of which the bag is composed,” states the bill.

The fear here, as stated later in the bill, is that dangerous, toxic reusable shopping bags are finding their way into consumers’ hands. According to the bill, all reusable bags sold or distributed in California must be “made from a material that can be cleaned and disinfected,” must have “guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting” the bag printed clearly somewhere on the bag and must “not contain lead, cadmium, or any other heavy metal in toxic amounts.”

I don’t know about you, but the thought of carrying around a shopping bag full of lead and cadmium scares the hell out of me. And a study[4] by Niles, Illinois-based TEI Analytical came out last November stating that about half of the bags made out of something called Non-Woven Poly Propylene (NWPP) contain more than 100 parts per million of lead and other heavy metals, which is considered toxic.

But then I called Brownley’s office and asked just how toxic the bag situation can get around here. And that’s when things got really alarming.

“The answer to that is still a question,” a staffer who requested anonymity told me with surprising candor. “We don’t know the extent of this problem.”

Apparently, there are studies that show just about everything. The chemical lobby apparently sponsored one study showing harmful levels of bacteria in reusable bags, the staffer said. And there was another study refuting that, saying the results were not “statistically valid.” A third study repeated the findings of the first, and so forth.

This is actually not surprising. The urge to legislate – to write bills and pass new laws – is powerful in the Capitol. Why else did voters vote assembly members and senators into office except to put new laws on the books?

The issue of bacteria in reusable bags is, of course, another matter entirely. Reusable bags are, for the most part, made of cloth, which requires regular washing. This is common sense. But apparently not enough people are washing their bags, which means supermarket checkers could get sick. Hence the apparent need for legislators to pass a law — and presumably, for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign said law — mandating that all bags carry clear washing instructions.

What’s next? A law requiring Wash Day in every household on alternate Saturdays?

All of this was part of Brownley’s much larger and far more controversial AB 1998, a bill last year that would have banned plastic or paper bags (unless shoppers agreed to pay 5 cents a bag) from stores throughout the state. Heavy lobbying by the chemical industry – which makes plastic bags – ultimately killed that bill.

Maybe Brownley figures her new, more modest AB 298, which was referred to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 24, has a better chance if no one knows about it.

— Anthony Pignataro

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