Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Plastic bag ban makes sense for all of California

The Davis City Council just voted to join the growing list of California cities that ban single-use plastic bags. The city of Sacramento is moving forward on a similar ordinance.

Local governments are right to take this modest step to help keep our streets and streams cleaner. But it would be far better if the Legislature passed statewide rules for what is a statewide problem.

Regrettably, a balanced bill barely failed to get out of the state Senate this past session, despite backing from environmental groups, retailers and grocers. Senate Bill 405 fell three votes short in May, killed by Latino Democrats who claimed it would cost hundreds of jobs in Los Angeles-area bag factories.

The bill’s author, Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, plans to try again in the next session that begins in January. He’s hopeful he can sway the four Democrats who abstained from voting. He argues that the job worries should be put to rest by a study, done for the city of Los Angeles, which found that only 15 jobs would be lost inside the city. It will be the largest city in the country with a plastic bag ban, when it takes effect Jan. 1.

“The public policy momentum continues to build,” Padilla told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board on Wednesday.

The Senate also rejected similar measures in 2010 and 2012, however. So you can’t blame local officials for acting on their own.

Tuesday night, Davis City Council members gave their final approval to a ban on single-use plastic bags that starts July 1 and covers about 475 retail businesses, including supermarkets and restaurants. To encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, stores would have to charge at least 10 cents for each recycled paper or reusable bag. They could make an exception for customers using food stamps, and could also offer free reusable bags during limited promotions. Businesses that don’t comply could be fined $100 for a first violation, $200 for a second and $500 for a third within 12 months.

Mayor Joe Krovoza said that Davis waited for a statewide bill, and moved forward because the ban is a key part of the city’s strategy to reduce waste.

Sacramento’s proposal is undergoing a review under the California Environmental Quality Act, which other larger cities have also done to protect themselves against potential lawsuits. Expected to go before the City Council early next year, the ban would cover large grocery stores and drugstores, as well as convenience stores.

The growing patchwork of local rules can put some shops at a competitive disadvantage and is confusing for businesses and consumers alike. While more than 80 California cities and counties have plastic bag bans, about 400 do not.

One estimate is that as many as 20 billion plastic bags are used by Californians each year, but only 5 percent are recycled. They litter roadsides and waterways, where governments then have to spend millions of dollars to clean them up. Eventually, some bags end up in the ocean, where they harm marine life. Phasing them out not only makes environmental sense, but also economic sense by creating a bigger market for reusable bags.

The case against single-use plastic bags is clear and compelling – for all of California.