The fate of a proposed statewide ban of single-use plastic bags will be decided today as appropriations committees in both houses of the Legislature decide whether to move it forward — or leave it in limbo for another year.
For legislators who care about the costs to the public of the "free" plastic bags, it will be an easy vote, following the path that about 100 California cities and counties have taken. Leaders in these cities and counties long ago made the tough decision to cut off the flow of single-use plastic bags. They did so for practical and economic reasons.
The bags are often called urban tumbleweeds due to their unique shape and weight — which makes them particularly problematic to clean up. They catch the air and float into trees and bushes. Their handles twist around vegetation and get stuck fast. In waterways and sewers, they act like traps for debris and can clog drains and filters quicker than city crews can clean them up.
In fact, it costs Californians as much as $100 million a year to remove some 14 billion single-use plastic bags sold each year in the state from rivers, parks, gutters, sewers and parks. Yes, "sold," is the right word. Retailers' overhead costs figure into the ultimate price tag for every box of Special K.
The proposed ban outlined in SB 270, a bill by Los Angeles Democrat Sen. Alex Padilla, isn't perfect. But it's the best that compromise could craft. And it's much better than the patchwork of bans that we have now.
The proposal bans single-use plastic bags outright from large retailers — grocery stores such as Safeway and pharmacies such as Rite Aid — and requires a fee of at least 10 cents for single-use paper bags starting in 2015. The following year, the restrictions would extend to convenience stores.
It allows stores to give away or sell plastic bags so long as they are durable enough to be reused at least 125 times, recyclable and contain a certain amount of post-consumer materials. It also exempts many plastic bags, such as the non-handled bags for peppers and other produce and bulk items, so those wondering what to use for dog waste need not despair.
We aren't thrilled that it will mean more money for grocers, who will collect the proceeds from 10 cents per paper bag, but are glad that it requires retailers to provide low-income shoppers with reusable bags at no cost. That means at least some of the proceeds from the paper bag fee will go to offset the ban's regressive nature.
Ideally, however, consumers will stop using paper bags altogether and start bringing their own reusable bags when they shop.