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Editorial: An easy vote on statewide plastic bag ban - yes

The fate of a proposed statewide ban of single-use plastic bags likely will be decided today as appropriations committees in both houses of the California 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 already have taken. Leaders in the state’s biggest cities – San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles – and many smaller towns – Davis and Calabasas – 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 often are 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 the some 14 billion single-use plastic bags sold each year in the state from rivers, parks, gutters, sewers and parks, and, 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 equivalent of one-third of the state has some sort of single-use plastic bag ban, or will have starting in January. The bans differ from city to city.

That’s nuts, and more reason why the Legislature should acknowledge that a uniform ban will help Californians.

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 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. It remains a significant flaw in the bill. But the legislation also would require 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 would go to offset the ban’s regressive nature.

Ideally, however, consumers will stop using paper bags and start bringing their own reusable bags when they shop. That’s the real intent of this bill.

The bag makers are lobbying hard and have spent millions to shut down a statewide bag ban ever since the Legislature started considering it four years ago. They know it will hasten the inevitable decline in their business and want to fight for their share of the market as long as they can.

Protecting this small industry by allowing it to profit through the polluting of our public spaces and letting the taxpayers pick up the bill doesn’t make economic sense.

This is the year for California’s leaders to lead on this important issue, and not leave Californians once again holding the bag.