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Katy Grimes

Paper, plastic or 10 cent bag tax?

Remember when plastic bags were foisted on the shopping public because cutting trees down for paper was bad? Introduced in the 1950’s, popular in the U.S. by the 1980’s, plastic bags were sold to the public as 100 percent reusable and recyclable. All types of plastic shopping bag can be recycled into new bags where effective collection schemes exist; some are even biodegradable.

Despite the fact that trees are a renewable resource, many stores and retail outlets accepted the plastic bags. “Paper or plastic?” became one of the most recognizable questions in America.

Flash forward to 2007, when the plastic bag began to smell like the cause du jour to environmentalists – that was the year some California cities began to adopt the bag bans.

Ban the bag ban

In California, there have been at least 15 pieces of legislation to ban plastic bags attempts since 2007. The latest bill, SB 270, passed the Assembly Natural Resources Committee last week, and will be heard in Assembly Appropriations Committee this week.

Several large California cities have banned plastic bags.

In 2012, the Los Angeles City Council voted to require stores that make more than $2 million a year or occupy retail space measuring more than 10,000 square feet to phase out plastic bags by Jan. 1, 2013; smaller stores have until July 1, 2014. The ordinance required paper bags to be available for 10 cents, with all proceeds going to the stores.

In January 2012, San Jose passed an ordinance banning plastic carryout bags at checkout at grocery, pharmacies and retail stores. Retailers may provide a paper bag made of 40 percent post-consumer recycled content for 10 cents each.

But state lawmakers want a statewide ban on the plastic bags.

Sen. Alex Padilla authored a bill last year that would have banned plastic bags statewide. Padilla’s bill, SB 405, failed to pass by only three votes.

Shortly thereafter, a new plastic bag bill was crafted. SB 270 by Senators Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles Alex Padilla, D- Pacoima, and Ricardo Lara, D-Los Angeles, “prohibits stores from distributing lightweight, single-use plastic bags.”

SB 270 bans the recyclable plastic bags and replaces them with heavier plastic bags, five times thicker. It is unclear in this legislation how a significantly thicker plastic bag is better for the environment. This current bag bill would also allow supermarkets and grocers to charge a minimum of 10 cents each for paper and thicker plastic bags.

This faux environmentalism hurts one of the few remaining manufacturing industries left in California.

If signed into law, the bag tax and/or ban would take effect in 2015, but only for large retailers and grocery stores. It would apply to pharmacies and liquor stores the next year, but ignores other retailers which also use plastic bags.

Ban the myths

One of the favorite talking points about plastic bags is that they are rarely recycled. In the bill analysis, de León, Padilla, and Lara, say “According to CalRecycle, less than five percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled.” Their bill “prohibits stores from distributing lightweight, single-use plastic bags.”

But this fallacy ignores the fact that a huge portion of grocery and retail plastic bags are reused as garbage pail liners, pet-waste disposal bags, lunch bags, and storage. Most important, a study by the National Center for Policy Analysis found it is better for the environment to reuse plastic bags as garbage pail liners rather than to recycle them because of the environmental “benefits of avoiding the production of the bin liners they replace.”

According to the study, an examination of the bag bans and budgets for litter collection and waste disposal in San Francisco, San Jose, and the City and County of Los Angeles, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and Brownsville and Austin, Texas, shows no evidence of a reduction in costs attributable to reduced use of plastic bags.

“Prior to the bag ban in San Francisco, bag disposal and lost revenue cost the city and the private waste disposal and recycling contractor at least 17 cents per bag, or $8.49 million annually. However, the NCPA found this estimate lumps paper and plastic bags together, whereas the vast majority of collection and disposal costs are due to paper bags.”

Plastic bags amount to less than 0.5 percent of the waste stream, and a similarly miniscule amount of landfill space.

There was no explicit estimate of the expected savings from the bag ban in San Jose, and data on the ban is still relatively incomplete, according to the NCPA.

Good for business? Which business?

The bill claims it will prevent job losses at plastic bag factories by providing $2 million dollars in loans or grant money to “re-tool” operations, and “re-train” workers to make the thicker, more expensive plastic bags.

However, $2 million dollars is a relatively small amount to large manufacturing operations, and will do little or nothing to protect the plastic bag industry from this forced business change, particularly if required to retool to survive. This part of the bill was clearly written by people unfamiliar with business operations.

According to the plastics industry trade association, the plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the U.S., employs more than 900,000 workers, and creates $374 billion in annual shipments.

Plastic bag alliance

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a Washington-based organization representing the plastic bag industry, reports its member companies employ 30,800 people in about 350 U.S. communities.

The Alliance says single-use plastic bags are recyclable and that many grocery stores have collection sites where shoppers can return old bags.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance held a teleconference last week to warn about this bill. APBA Executive Director Lee Califf explained proponents of SB 270 say the purpose is environmentalism, and to stop litter, and protect marine life. “Plastic bags are less than one percent of the litter in the U.S. and in California,” said Califf. “This legislation would have a negative impact.”

Steve Schmidt with Edelman Public Affairs. Schmidt warned of the peril of the thousands of manufacturing jobs because of SB 270. “Trade associations donate millions, and get billions in return,” Schmidt said. He warned of the lack of transparency surrounding this bill, under the guise of faux environmentalism, “is terrible public policy.”

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