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California plastic bag ban floated, then sinks

| June 6, 2013

California loves its plastic! From credit cards to Playboy Bunnies, California can’t get enough of the stuff, as the recent battle in the Senate shows. Don’t worry, plastic-lovers, the Senate won’t stand between you and an ever-increasing mountain of plastic grocery bags festering in your cupboard and breeding like Tribbles. The latest attempt at a plastic bag ban was struck down when it went to a vote.

plastic waste in water

California took a step toward eliminating one pernicious form of waste… and then took a step backward. From Kevin Krejci.

Bill 405 split the California Senate almost perfectly down the middle, with 18 Senators in favor, 17 opposing, and four sitting this one out. The bill needed 21 votes to pass, so you may be forgiven for believing the abstainers carried the most powerful votes of all.

The plastic bag ban would have banned grocery stores and large retail outlets from handing out single-use plastic bags with purchases starting Jan. 1, 2015. The ban would have fallen on smaller retailers a year later. As it stands, the dog parks and under-sink cupboards of California will remain well-stocked for the forseeable future. As, ultimately, will the landfills, roadsides, and oceans.

There is considerable lobbyist support for plastic bags, as you can see from this Save the Plastic Bags website. Even that site does not dispute this statistic, from Rensselaer County: “Each year the United States uses 30 billion plastic and 10 billion paper grocery bags, requiring approximately 14 million trees and 12 million barrels of oil.” Additionally, each reusable bag has the potential to replace up to 1000 disposable bags. Instead of denying the statistics, the Save the Bag site explains that domestically-produced bags are actually made of natural gas, not oil. It does not give a figure for how much natural gas is used to produce the bags, or mention that 12 million barrels is in addition to the natural gas.

Recycling plastic bags label

Recycling plastic bags isn’t even an option everywhere. From recyclereminders.com

Nonetheless, some people just won’t give them up. Senator Ricardo Lara defended the bags. “Saying plastic bags are single-use is a huge misnomer. If you think plastic bags are single-use, you haven’t met my mother.” Senator Alex Padilla, who sponsored the bill, countered by saying that the bill would not cost bag manufacturing jobs at all. “These companies are transitioning and workers can be trained,” he said. “It’s like arguing we shouldn’t fight climate change because of what it might do to the oil companies.”

Padilla explained that workers can be trained, and factories retooled, to produce reuseable bags that can be sold themselves, instead of the cost of the bag being included in the cost of the other items. This is the very definition of value-added, and with increasing numbers of governments banning the bags within their jurisdictions, it may be the only practical alternative to wholesale unemployment in the bag manufacturing industry.

Although a statewide plastic bag ban has been blocked, at least temporarily, more than 70 municipal and county goverments within California have already banned the bags. A unified state policy would make it easier for chain stores to manage their supply chain within the state, instead of having to remember that Sacramento doesn’t like plastic bags and Bakersfield, for example, is cool with them.

Old man with plastic bag

This might have become a rare sight around Los Angeles, if the proposed law hadn’t been torpedoed. From Derriel Street Photography.

In Canada’s North, where virtually everything has to be flown in, a charge of 25 cents per bag is common and, while a nominal amount, has been enough to fundamentally change shopping habits in the close-knit and community-minded settlements north of sixty. I went to the same store two days in a row, had to buy a bag both times, and the cashier told me sternly to put bags in my car so I didn’t forget next time.

Plastic bags can be recycled, although the number of depots accepting them as incoming materials is sparse enough that there is an online finder. Many grocery stores will collect and recycle used bags and return them to the plant, where they are re-processed into more plastic bags. Given the limited options for recycling, reduction is clearly the point at which efforts can have the greatest impact on outcomes in the war against pointless, unprofitable waste.

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Category: Plastic, Regulations

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