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California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law the nation's first statewide ban on plastic single-use grocery bags.


Under the measure, known as SB 270, shoppers will either have to bring their own reusable grocery bags, or pay 10 cents apiece for paper shopping bags. Stores that either use plastic shopping bags, or use paper bags but do not charge customers for them, would be fined up to $5,000. Unless the law is overturned, larger stores will be expected to comply starting in July 2015, and smaller businesses in 2016.

The ban is hardly a new idea; over 100 localities within the state had already enacted similar ones on their own. However, the Sacramento Bee said that in San Francisco, the first city to have imposed such a ban, an unnamed spokesman said the city had not yet levied a single fine.

Pro and con

Supporters for the ban all cite various environmental concerns: plastic bags require petroleum to produce, and are destined to eventually turn into trash, so if customers brought their own reusable bags instead, both problems would be significantly reduced.

Opponents of the bag ban cite a variety of different reasons, though. One critique is that the law will impose extra costs on people least able to afford it. State assemblyman Scott Wilk, who voted against SB 270, called it “another funding source for the grocery store industry. It’s just another way of taking a shot at the little guy.”

The plastic bag ban, and mandatory fee for paper bags, basically only applies to food and consumable purchases: grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor and convenience stores all must obey the bag bans. The bans do not apply to non-food retailers; clothing and electronics stores can use plastic or freely give away paper bags.

A cynic might even say, “The bag ban only covers necessities, like food and medicine, which poor people are as likely as rich people to buy.”

(As a personal anecdote, I'll mention another way the bag ban might hurt poor and/or thrifty people: I'm a longtime follower of the common frugal-living tip “Re-use plastic shopping bags as garbage bags,” and if it became illegal for me to get plastic bags from stores for free, I'd spend money to buy plastic garbage bags from stores. My own household would still dispose of pretty much the same net amount of plastic, though.)

Water usage

Another critique of the plastic bag ban is that (especially in the case of contemporary California, currently undergoing the fourth year of the most severe drought in its history), it might simply replace one environmental problem with another: the problem of plastic trash replaced by the problem of increased water and energy use.

The goal of the bans is to encourage consumers to rely on reusable rather than disposable shopping bags. But reusable bags, especially those used to carry food, need frequent washing to ensure they don't become microbial breeding grounds.

People have already gotten sick from contaminated reusable shopping bags. In 2010, for example, a particularly nasty norovirus outbreak among a kids' soccer team and their adult chaperones in Oregon was eventually traced to a contaminated bag: everyone who caught the norovirus had eaten packaged cookies which had been carried in the infected bag.

Presumably, the norovirus jumped from the bag to the outside of the cookie package, then rubbed off on the cookies themselves once the package was opened.

Energy consumption

The way to avoid bacterial or viral contamination is to treat reusable shopping bags the same way you treat underwear: use it (or wear it) once, then wash it in hot water, not just to clean it, but also to kill any microbes. Of course, this requires not just the water, but also the energy to heat it.

Yet anything that increases California water consumption right now arguably works against the state's best interest. The Los Angeles Times reported on Sept. 25 that the drought has “14 communities [in the state] on the brink of waterlessness,” with some towns already reduced to trucking in water supplies because the regular public water supply has been depleted.

Unless rains come to replenish the groundwater, some communities are predicted to run out of water within 60 days. Granted: should their taps go completely dry, insufficient water to launder their shopping bags will be low on their list of immediate worries.

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