California Rejects Ban on Plastic Shopping Bags

by | Sep 2, 2010

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California lawmakers have rejected a bill that would have been the first statewide ban on plastic shopping bags in the nation, USA Today reports.

The Democratic bill, AB 1998, which failed on a 14-21 vote late Tuesday, had drawn fierce opposition from the plastic bag manufacturing industry, which spent heavily on ads attacking the measure as a jobs killer.

“California uses 19 billion plastic bags a year. … We use them for 10 minutes and it takes 1,000 years to break down,” the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica told ABC News.  Brownley said it costs the state $25 million a year to clean up the mess. “It’s very difficult to really completely clean it up,” Brownley said. “It’s very easy for us to change our habits.”

The bill, which GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hailed when it passed the State Assembly in June, would have barred grocery stores, large pharmacies and retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart that sell food from offering plastic bags in 2012. The ban would have extended to convenience stores, drugstores and mom-and-pop shops in 2013. Consumers would have had to carry their goods in reusable bags or buy recycled paper ones at store cost.

Environmental groups have long lobbied for statewide bans, but only local ones have passed. The California cities of San Francisco, Malibu, Palo Alto and Fairfax have approved bans, and North Carolina banned single-use plastic and non-recyclable bags last year in the Outer Banks. In January, Washington, D.C., began requiring grocery stores to charge a nickel for disposable grocery bags, according to USA Today.

The proposed ban had gone further than in any other state, in part because of support from the California Grocers Association, an industry group that previously opposed the bill.

“The bill has been amended tremendously,” said the group’s CEO Ronald Fong, adding its revised version pre-empted local jurisdictions from passing their own bag bans. Without a statewide ban, he said stores will face a potential patchwork of dozens of varying local ordinances that could cause “chaos and customer confusion.”

“This issue is not going away,” Fong told USA Today. “The future is in reusable bags. It’s the right thing to do.”

To garner more support, Brownley also removed a provision that would have charged customers a nickel to buy a recycled paper bag. The revised version allows retailers to charge only what it costs them to buy the bags.

Despite the tweaks to the bill, the Virginia-based American Chemistry Council spent millions in lobbying fees, radio ads and a prime-time TV ad attacking the measure, reports the Associated Press. The group, which represents plastic bag makers including Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil Corp, helped sink Seattle’s effort last year to charge 20-cents for each plastic or paper grocery bag .

Keith Christman, managing director of the group’s plastic markets, told USA Today the bill will only exacerbate California’s economic problems by putting 1,000 plastic bag workers out of jobs, taxing consumers for paper bags and creating a “bag police” at a time when teachers are getting furloughed.

State Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest shared his sentiments. “If we pass this piece of legislation, we will be sending a message to the people of California that we care more about banning plastic bags than helping them put food on their table,” she told ABC News.

The amendment to Brownley’s bill would have provided $2 million in grants and loans to retain jobs in businesses making plastic bags so they could retool and produce reusable bags. A spokeswoman for Brownley told ABC News that she believed the bill would have created more green jobs.

“Workers don’t want training programs. With millions of people out of work,” Christman countered. “We don’t need this today. They want their jobs.”

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