Editorial: Proposed statewide plastic bag ban needs some repairs

02/02/2014 12:00 AM

01/31/2014 5:16 PM

Sometimes, what’s made necessary by politics doesn’t make for good policy. While there’s a worthy goal behind a bill to ban disposable plastic bags at California grocery stores, some dicey deals have been made to boost its chances of becoming law.

Before approving what would be the nation’s first statewide ban on plastic bags, legislators must make sure consumers and the environment are the big winners.

Senate Bill 270 would prohibit groceries and pharmacies from distributing carryout plastic bags starting on July 1, 2015. Only thicker bags strong enough for at least 125 uses and with at least 20 percent recycled content could be provided. The bill would extend to convenience stores and liquor outlets on July 1, 2016. It would not pre-empt local bans already in place in about 90 cities and counties, or others adopted before Sept. 1.

Lawmakers can improve the bill by focusing on a few areas.

One is the “no less than 10 cents” that grocery stores would collect from customers who need or want paper bags. Environmental groups and others supporting the measure say the fee is needed to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags instead of using paper bags, which have their own environmental costs.

But this charge must not be a money-maker for grocery chains.

The California Grocers Association, which backs the bill, says that isn’t the intent. Supporters say that 10 cents, the amount in most local plastic bag bans, is roughly the cost to provide paper bags. They also say that shoppers now pay for “free” plastic bags because the cost is hidden in the price of groceries.

The bill’s draft language does not cap how much can be charged for a paper bag. Legislators must make clear that it cannot exceed the cost of providing it – or that any extra amount should not go to stores, but to a public purpose.

A good one would be to boost the recycling of all plastic bags. The track record for grocery stores is mixed, at best. Safeway, an industry leader, refuses to even discuss the issue.

A 2006 law requires groceries and large retailers to make it easy for consumers to return used bags. CalRecycle, however, is no longer collecting good numbers, much less enforcing the law. The latest figures are for 2009, when regulated stores statewide collected about 1,500 tons of plastic carryout bags for recycling of the nearly 53,000 tons they bought. That is a paltry rate of 3 percent.

Sen. Alex Padilla, the bill’s main author, told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that he’s willing to look at ways to boost recycling. But he and others behind the bill argue that the better solution is to phase out disposable plastic bags entirely. As many as 20 billion are used by Californians each year. Some bags are reused for home trash or pet waste, but many litter roadsides and waterways or end up in the ocean, where they harm marine life.

There are also questions about a significant sweetener added to the new version of the bill – $2 million for plastic bag makers to re-engineer their plants to make reusable bags. A plant receiving aid would have to retrain and keep its workers.

Preserving these blue-collar, middle-class jobs is certainly important. The new provision brought on board two key Latino legislators from the Los Angeles area, Sens. Ricardo Lara and Kevin de León, the Senate president pro tem in waiting, who voted against the bill last year.

Here’s where it gets complicated.

According to bill supporters, there are only two plants in California still making the kind of plastic bags that would be banned, and they both sit in a part of Los Angeles County eligible for the financial assistance.

Command Packaging in Vernon supports the bill, but it’s already retooling and isn’t likely to seek the money. Crown Poly, which employs 300 in nearby Huntington Park, opposes the measure and isn’t saying whether it would apply. De León’s office, however, says the money is an incentive for Crown Poly to support the bill.

Under the bill’s draft language, the aid could be in grants or loans and would come from an existing CalRecycle revolving loan fund to help recycling enterprises. To make sure these other efforts aren’t hurt, any aid to plastic bag plants should be in loans.

As Padilla tries to solidify support in the Senate, where last year’s bill fell three votes short of the 21 needed to pass, the new version will go through Assembly policy committees.

As usual, the details will matter. It’s up to legislators to make sure no flaws in the bill come back to bite taxpayers.

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