Editorial: California says ‘no thanks’ to plastic bags

Torrey Spoerer

Ever since its invention in the mid 1960s by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin, plastic bags were embraced by American shoppers as convenient, easily disposable one-time carryalls. That’s all about to change though for Californians statewide, after State Gov. Jerry Brown approved and signed State Bill SB-270 on Sept. 23.

Starting in July 2015, large grocery stores, pharmacies and other food retailers in California will no longer be able to send shoppers home with plastic bags. A year later, in July 2016, convenience markets, liquor stores and other small food retailers will also join the ban.

Many plastic bags — intentionally littered or not — end up clogging our neighborhood parks, forests, rivers and even the Pacific Ocean, where they either take years to biodegrade or become a fatal choking hazard for numerous wildlife.

Producing all of the plastic bags used by Americans requires large amounts of petroleum, only to become an immediately disposed single-use item. According to the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, Americans use more than 380 billion bags every year, wasting millions of barrels of oil.

“If a product is too costly to society and the environment, California is prepared to move to eliminate it,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, the bill’s sponsor.

One major argument point from opponents of the new bill is the potential loss of jobs in the plastic bag industry.

The state law, however, acknowledges those concerns by putting forward $2 million to help factories retool and workers retrain to make thicker plastic bags, made partially of recycled material, which grocers could distribute for a 10 cent fee.

According to Article 6 of SB-270 on financial provisions:

“Notwithstanding Section 42023.2, the sum of two million dollars ($2,000,000) is hereby appropriated from the Recycling Market Development Revolving Loan Subaccount in the Integrated Waste Management Account to the department for the purposes of providing loans for the creation and retention of jobs and economic activity in this state for the manufacture and recycling of plastic reusable grocery bags that use recycled content, including postconsumer recycled material.”

Even then, the one-sided jobs argument fails to acknowledge the increase in demand for reusable bags as an inevitable result of eliminating plastic bags.

When that increase in demand happens, there will be a large need for more companies and workers to produce reusable bags, hence plenty of new job opportunities for those who will have to leave plastic bag production behind.

Outside of California, 57 cities and counties have passed bag bans including Austin, Seattle, Chicago and Portland, Ore., while outside of the United States, more than 114 cities and countries have plastic bag restrictions in place, according to Californians Against Waste.

“This bill is a step in the right direction — it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself,” said Gov. Brown. “We’re the first (U.S. state) to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last.”