A growing list of California cities has banned single-use plastic bags, and others are moving in that direction. Local governments are right to take this modest step to help keep our streets and streams cleaner. But it would be far better if the Legislature passed statewide rules for what is a statewide problem.
Regrettably, a balanced bill to get out of the state Senate this past session, despite backing from environmental groups, retailers and grocers. Senate Bill 405 fell three votes short in May, killed by Latino Democrats who claimed it would cost hundreds of jobs in Los Angeles-area bag factories.
The bill’s author, Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, plans to try again in the next session that begins in January. He’s hopeful he can sway the four Democrats who abstained from voting. He argues that the job worries should be put to rest by a study, done for the city of Los Angeles, which found that only 15 jobs would be lost inside the city. Los Angeles will be the largest city in the country with a plastic bag ban, when it takes effect Jan. 1.
“The public policy momentum continues to build,” Padilla told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.
The Senate also rejected similar measures in 2010 and 2012. Local officials started acting because the state didn’t.
Typically, the cities ban the one-use plastic bags and require stores to charge at least 10 or 25 cents for paper bags, as a way to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags. Many shoppers already do that, some because the stores offer a small discount, say 5 cents, but others because it is just the right thing to do.
The growing patchwork of local rules can put some shops at a competitive disadvantage and is confusing for businesses and consumers alike. While more than 80 California cities and counties have plastic bag bans, about 400 do not.
One estimate is that as many as 20 billion plastic bags are used by Californians each year, but only 5 percent are recycled. They litter roadsides and waterways, where governments then have to spend millions of dollars to clean them up. Eventually, some bags end up in the ocean, where they harm marine life. Beach communities were among the first to adopt the plastic bag bans; some of those have been in place since 2008.
Here in the Central Valley, flying plastic bags are a common type of litter along streets and in rural areas. There has been no study or proposal for a plastic bag ban in Stanislaus County. Officials say the bags are one type of wind-blown litter that has to be contained at the Fink Road landfill. The litter fences at the site collect most of the items.
A few Valley cities, however, are looking to ban plastic bags. Sacramento is studying a proposal, and the Davis City Council this week adopted a ban that will go into effect next summer.
The case against single-use plastic bags is increasingly clear and compelling – for all of California.