Bill to ban plastic bags in California clears Senate committee

Reusable shopping bags, Cagle, April 19, 2013April 19, 2013

By Josephine Djuhana

The war on plastic bags has returned with a vengeance, as legislators introduce new regulations that dictate what kinds of bags California shoppers are allowed to use when out shopping for groceries.

SB 405, authored by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, would effectively prohibit stores from providing a single-use carryout plastic bag to customers. According to a press release on Sen. Padilla’s website:

* “Beginning January 1, 2015, grocery stores and pharmacies would be prohibited from making available single-use plastic bags. If paper bags are offered to customers, they would have to include recycled content and customers would have to be charged the actual cost of providing the recycled paper bags.

* “Beginning July 1, 2016, convenience stores and liquor stores would be required to meet the same standard.

* “The bill would not pre-empt local ordinances already in place.”

“SB 405 will help protect our environment by phasing out single-use plastic bags in California,” said Padilla. “Single-use plastic bags fill our landfills, clog inland waterways, litter our coastline, and kill thousands of fish, marine mammals and seabirds.”


The hearing for the bill occurred on Wednesday, and SB 405 has since passed the Senate environmental quality committee on a 5-3 vote. The bag ban, however, has been met with some bipartisan opposition, and many members of the business community have come against it.

Cathy Browne, general manager at plastic bag maker Crown Poly Inc., called SB 405 “misguided legislation” that was not fact-based. In a press conference call on Tuesday, she warned that 300 Angelenos would be put out of manufacturing jobs if the bill was made law. “Our employees … work very hard at their jobs, and they shouldn’t lose their jobs just because politicians are listening to environmental rhetoric,” she said.

“Plastic bag bans are simply bad public policy,” said Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, during the call. “To date, the debate on plastic bags has been supported by unfounded stats, junk science and myths. The reality is that American made plastic bags are a better choice for the environment and banning them will cause more harm to the environment. If California wants to lead in the fight against global warming, banning plastic bags will have the exact opposite effect.”

More than 72 California cities and counties have adopted ordinances to ban the use of plastic bags, among them a number of beach cities, including Huntington Beach.

“As a conservationist and local surfer in Huntington Beach, I’ve heard from my district that these bag bans are not the appropriate approach,” Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, told me. “While these bans are addressing less than .5 percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream, we are exposing people to serious health risks and stressing Southern California water conservation efforts. There is a far bigger picture that needs to be considered and not just settle on a single issue when voting on these bans.”

Environmental concerns

Bag bans are largely introduced as a measure to preserve the environment and prevent plastics from clogging inland waterways, filling up landfills and becoming floating marine debris. But there are many devils in the details, and banning plastic bags actually may be more costly to the environment, and result in more waste and energy expenditure.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance made the following findings on plastic bags:

* Plastic bags produce fewer greenhouse gases than paper or cotton bags.

* Plastic grocery bags require 70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper bags.

* The production of plastic bags consumes less than 4 percent of the water needed to make paper bags.

* Plastic bags generate 80 percent less waste than paper bags.

* For every seven trucks needed to deliver paper bags, only one truck is needed for the same number of plastic bags.

* American plastic bags are made from natural gas, not oil. In the U.S., 85 percent of the raw material used to make plastic bags is produced from natural gas.

APBA Chairman Mark Daniels also highlighted the fallacies in using reusable bags. He said the reusable bags are often “made to look like cotton” but are, in actuality, made of nonwoven poly-propylene, which is essentially a plastic. Additionally, many reusable bags cannot be recycled and “are mostly shipped from overseas and are made from foreign oil.”

Health concerns

The science behind reusable bags belies a more insidious impact that plastic bag bans have brought. Not only are reusable bags less energy-efficient to produce and more harmful to the environment, multiple reports have shown that reusable bags spread disease. And Californians need not look further than San Francisco to see the potential health hazards caused by contaminated reusable bags.

Research by Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright showed that reusable bags “contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli.” In fact, since San Francisco County banned plastic bags in 2007, the researchers found that “both deaths and ER visits spiked as soon as the ban went into effect” and that, relative to other counties, “deaths in San Francisco increase by 50-100 percent, and ER visits increase by a comparable amount.”

Then, consider a case in Oregon, where a girl on a soccer team got sick and “spent six hours in a chaperone’s bathroom” suffering from “vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps”:

“The soccer team of 13- and 14-year-olds traveled to Seattle for a weekend tournament in October 2010.

“At the tournament, one girl got sick on Saturday and spent six hours in a chaperone’s bathroom. Symptoms of the bug, often called “stomach flu,” include vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. The chaperone took the girl back to Oregon.

“On Sunday, team members had lunch in a hotel room, passing around the bag and eating cookies it held. On Monday, six girls got sick.”

A 2011 study did show that washing reusable bags would reduce bacteria by 99.9 percent, but considering that only 3 percent of people actually wash their bags, health problems still abound.

Rise of regulations

Despite mounting concerns on banning plastic bags, California legislators continue on this quest. From foie gras to frisbees, state lawmakers see no area of private life where government does not have a place even in spite of Governor Jerry Brown’s public admonishment that not every human condition is deserving of a new law. We don’t yet have to worry about California regulating Big Gulps like Mayor Bloomberg  did in New York, but if the State Legislature can justify banning plastic bags in the interest of the public good, so too could it justify soda next.

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