California would become the first state to ban single-use plastic carryout bags at groceries and pharmacies if voters pass Proposition 67 in November.
It remains unclear, however, if an initiative victory in California would lead other states to follow suit, since regulations around the nation on plastic carryout containers can only be described as a mixed bag.
Other states — including Arizona, Missouri and Idaho
— have gone in the opposite direction of California, passing laws preventing local governments from banning plastic carryout bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Michigan last week, the House Committee on Commerce and Trade approved legislation that would prohibit local governments from imposing a fee on certain types of carryout bags or banning their use. The bill has already passed the Michigan state senate.
In California, where about half of the state falls under local plastic bag bans, a referendum will decide the fate of a 2014 bill passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. A “yes” vote signals approval for banning the ubiquitous thin plastic grocery bags while encouraging the use of reusable bags.
Opposition to the ban has centered more on money than the environment. In addition to banning the thinner single-use bags, the measure would also impose a 10-cent fee for the purchase of heavier, multiuse plastic bags or paper alternatives at the check-out counter. Stores would keep that money to offset the costs of the more durable plastic and paper bags and to provide educational materials to encourage customers to switch to reusable bags.
“This is feel-good legislation passed with an unholy alliance,” Jon Berrier, spokesman for both the “No on 67” campaign and the American Progressive Bag Alliance, told AMI Newswire. Berrier said the 10-cent bag fee would create a revenue stream for retailers worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The plastics industry has also placed a second measure on the November ballot: Proposition 65, which would redirect the bag fees to environmental projects managed by the state Wildlife Conservation Board.
“This bill in fact was … kind of a payoff to large grocers and the California Grocers Association members,” Berrier said. “Eighty-two percent of California voters believe that these bag fees should not be kept by retailers.”
Supporters of the bag ban say that the bags get blown away by the wind, cause clogs in storm drains, kill marine life, persist in the environment for decades and generate tons of greenhouse gas emissions during their manufacture. In addition, supporters fault the bags for jamming equipment operated by recyclers.
“The only statewide poll (USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times) showed a strong 2-1 support for the statewide ban and upholding the referendum,” Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for the “Yes-on-67” campaign said in an email to AMI. “One hundred fifty-one California communities have plastic bag bans, including 19 that have done so since the plastic bag industry qualified the state referendum.”
Supporters also cite data from the Ocean Conservancy, which found that single-use plastic bags are one of the most common items picked up during beach cleanups.
“Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, but instead break into small pieces that can attract surrounding toxins to contaminate the environment and food chain,” the group Californians Against Waste said on its website. Moreover, the group cites information from the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery that only 3 percent of single-use plastic bags are reused.
Supporters also point to a University of New Hampshire study released this year that concluded reductions in plastic bag use are best achieved when taxes on the bags are high enough to cause shoppers to change their behavior.
“Each year, Americans use more than 100 billion plastic bags, most of which are thrown away and end up in landfills or on the side of the road,” the university’s website said.
Plastic bag policies tend to vary by region. Washington, D.C., has imposed a fee on single-use plastic bags, while the states of New York, Delaware, Maine and Rhode Island have recycling/reuse programs in place. And in North Carolina’s outer banks, a ban on single-use plastic bags is in place.
Hawaii has a de facto statewide ban because its most populous counties have all approved bans on nonbiodegradable plastic bags at the checkout counter.
Those who want to “bag the bans” argue that the environmental drawbacks of single-use plastic bags have been overblown and that supporters have used overly emotional arguments. One study by the Environmental Agency of England found that conventional high-density polyethylene bags have the lowest impact on global warming and human toxicity compared to other alternatives.
“This is a 100-percent recyclable product made from domestic natural gas,” Berrier said, adding that store take-back programs do promote recycling of the bags. Indeed, a federal Environmental Protection Agency study found that the recycling rate for the single-use bags is 17 percent — much higher than what many environmentalist groups claim.
And replacements for the thin single-use bags, such as nonwoven polypropylene bags imported from China, are not reused enough by consumers to have a significant environmental impact, and they’re not recyclable, he said.
The reusable carryout bags have been linked to the spread of disease as well, Berrier said. “If you don’t clean these bags adequately, they can transfer bacteria or germs to families, and that can result in illness,” he said.
Berrier also points to the economic benefits of single-use carryout bags. The bags help support 25,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide, including 2,000 jobs in California, he said.
Although he acknowledged that no amount of plastic pollution in the oceans is acceptable, Berrier said that single-use plastic bags make up less than 1 percent of the trash stream. Fishing lines and other pollution make up a much bigger threat, he said.