Plastic shopping bags are ubiquitous in grocery stores around the world, loved for their convenience, durability, and low cost to stores. But they tend to wind up clogging landfills, littering the ground, and floating in rivers and oceans, where they can be deadly to animals that mistake them for food.
Because of their immense environmental impact, several countries have begun to institute fees at the register for consumers who choose to use them, or ban the bags altogether, with some local US governments following suit. Now, a California law that would have become the first such statewide ban in the United States could be overturned.
Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 270, banning single-use plastic bags and requiring stores to charge at least 10 cents for paper bags. The law also provides $2 million in loans to plastics manufacturers to help them switch to producing reusable bags. One hundred and thirty-eight California cities and counties have adopted plastic bag bans.
The state law was set to go into effect July 1st for large stores, with convenience shops and other small retailers required to comply by July 2016. But on Tuesday, the California Secretary of State announced that the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), which represents the plastic bag industry, had collected enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot a measure overturning the state ban on plastic bags.
"SB 270 was never a bill about the environment," Lee Califf, Executive Director of APBA, said. "It was a back room deal between the California Grocers Association and their union friends to scam consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees — all under the guise of environmentalism."
'The one thing that affects everybody is less pollution in our waterways.'
Plastic bags are far cheaper than single-use paper bags, raising concerns that if retailers need to purchase more paper bags, they'll pass the cost on to the consumers. A 2010 study by market research firm AECOM found that plastic bags in Los Angeles generally cost less than one cent, while paper bags average between five and 15 cents.
Consumers often reuse plastic bags to line small trash bins and pick up pet waste. A Los Angeles County study, commissioned after its 2011 ban, found that the prohibition cost consumers about $4 per resident annually in paper bag fees and costs of buying garbage bags. Large retailers took in about $4,600 in bag fees, which generally offset the increased costs incurred when purchasing the pricier paper bags.
"By nature of it, those recurring costs should decrease over time," Stephen Heverley, managing director of the Equinox Center, a nonpartisan research center in San Diego, told VICE News. "Those reusable bags tend to last a long time."
In 2013, Equinox completed its own environmental and economic impact review of plastic bag bans, focusing on the Los Angeles law as well as existing citywide bans in San Jose and Santa Monica. That study found that per capita cost of plastic bag bans across those three areas was around $7.70 annually.
The report also found that the laws significantly changed bagging habits. Prior to bans being enacted, plastic bags comprised 75 percent of all bags used by consumers, while reusable bags made up 5 percent and paper bags 3 percent. The remaining consumers used no bags. After the ban, paper bag use went up to 16 percent and reusable 45 percent, while 39 percent chose no bag at all.
Los Angeles also saw the creation of several new reusable bag businesses, Heverley said.
And, beyond the economics of the bag bans and how they impacted consumer behavior, they seem to yield significant environmental improvements.
"The one thing that affects everybody is less pollution in our waterways," Heverley told VICE News. "We in San Diego hire teams of workers to go out and clean around the landfills and specifically pick up those plastic bags that tend to fly around. Plastic is one of the biggest pollution issues in the marine environment."
San Jose's own 2012 study found that after its ban, which prohibited plastic bags and required a 10 cent charge for paper, the number of bags in storm drains, creeks, and streets went down 89 percent, 60 percent, and 59 percent, respectively.
"[T]he Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance has been successful at affecting community norms towards shopping with reusable bags and reducing single-use plastic bag litter in City creeks and streets," the San Jose report concluded.
"There are millions and millions of these bags used around the state, and even in San Diego here," Heverley told VICE News. "So going from millions and millions of bags to essentially zero…is a big impact."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro