Another View: Bill to ban plastic bags would not help environment

02/09/2014 12:00 AM

02/06/2014 5:26 PM

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board is right to point out the dicey deals being made to bolster Senate Bill 270, the plastic bag ban (“State ban on plastic bags needs repair”; Editorials, Feb. 2). As the board noted, the bill is overloaded with monetary sweeteners created for passage – to grocery stores for paper bags, to industry for retooling, to recyclers for recycling – rather than on the larger goal of reducing overall use of plastic bags.

Instead of creating policy incentives to reverse the trend of using plastic bags, this bill justifies the creation and use of more plastic bags in the name of recycling, which is good for recyclers and plastic manufacturers, but not necessarily a benefit to our environment.

The bill bans only the thinnest of plastic bags by mandating that plastic retail bags have handles, be of a certain minimum thickness and durability, and contain recycled content.

Simply making a plastic bag thicker and calling it reusable, without any other incentive to bring it back for reuse, does not affect consumer behavior. It merely replaces thin retail bags with heavier plastic bags.

Although it sounds environmentally responsible to require recycled content in plastic bags, it actually may do more harm than good. People are likely to think: It’s recycled, so it’s OK.

But plastic bags, even recycled ones, are not OK. Bags with 20 percent recycled content contain four times more virgin plastic per bag for every measure of recycled plastic, adding to the waste stream, not reducing it. When littered, recycled plastic threatens marine life and contributes to the plastic buildup in our oceans at the same rate as virgin plastic.

When thick recycled bags are the only free option, the incentive is to use more of them, not less. Rather than recycle, our state should focus its legislative efforts on proven methods to reduce and reuse retail carryout bags.

Around the world, plastic bag use has dropped precipitously with a simple fee of 10 cents or more per bag. Fees elsewhere have been successful because they apply to all carryout bags sold at checkout – without exception – and let consumers rather than legislators choose who gets their money and who doesn’t.

Other governments do not allow industries to keep more than a small administrative fee from the revenue collected, creating a disincentive for stores to hide the cost of “free” bags in the price of other goods. Revenue is usually designated for a worthy public purpose.

SB 270 puts the cart before the horse by placing recycling before reducing and reusing, and by offering monetary benefits to groups likely to block the bill. If the point is to protect the environment, only a bill that incentivizes a reduction of all bags – paper and plastic, thick and thin – will do that.

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