Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed the nation's first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores, driven to action by pollution in streets and waterways.However, the benefits of the "Bag Ban" are largely illusory; to make environmentalists feel good:
A national coalition of plastic bag manufacturers immediately said it would seek a voter referendum to repeal the law, which is scheduled to take effect in July 2015.
Under SB270, plastic bags will be phased out of checkout counters at large grocery stores and supermarkets such as Wal-Mart and Target starting next summer, and convenience stores and pharmacies in 2016. The law does not apply to bags used for fruits, vegetables or meats, or to shopping bags used at other retailers. It allows grocers to charge a fee of at least 10 cents for using paper bags.
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, credits the momentum for statewide legislation to the more than 100 cities and counties, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, that already have such bans.
The law marks a major milestone for environmental activists who have successfully pushed plastic bag bans in cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Austin and Seattle.
"This bill is a step in the right direction -- it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself," Brown said in a signing statement. "We're the first to ban these bags, and we won't be the last."
Empirical work on the effects of a plastic bag ban on grocery and convenience stores in Los Angeles was undertaken in an NCPA study two years ago. This found that areas with the bag ban on average saw sales decline by 3.3 per cent over a one year period, compared with an average increase in sales of 3.4 per cent in areas without the ban. Of course, given that ours is a charge, not a ban, and is applied to all supermarkets across the country we might expect the distortive aggregate effect to be much smaller. Yet the government evidently thinks it will have a detrimental effect on some businesses, otherwise it would not have exempted small businesses and independent stores from the legislation.But it's worth forcing down the throats of all Californians if it makes environmentalists feel good about themselves.
Indeed, the most baffling part of this sort of legislation is its inconsistencies. If plastic bags are the thing we want fewer of, then why are some shops exempted? More importantly, if it is plastic per se we want less off, why are we only imposing charges on plastic bags? What about plastic pots and food containers? Will not imposing charges on the bags simply lead to adjustments to packaging to make the goods easier to carry in the first place?
In reality, it’s rare for the public discourse to seem to be concerned by plastic per se. Perhaps this is just because of the visual effects of plastic bag pollution. But one gets the sense that the anger surrounding their use is more to do with opposition to the casual consumption they represent, considered ‘vulgar’ by some.
Then there are the environmental trade-offs, of course. Since people still need some sort of means of carrying their shopping, we cannot only consider the humble plastic bag in isolation. One of the reasons why plastic bags are so cheap, for example, is precisely because they are extremely energy and water efficient to produce. For an equivalent amount of groceries, the NCAP study finds that production of paper bags consumes three times as much energy as plastic. Paper bags also produce substantially more landfill waste, whilst both paper bags and reusable bags lead to much higher greenhouse gas emissions than their plastic cousin.
In fact, an Environment Agency study found that cotton bags would need to be re-used over 100 times before they yielded net environmental benefits. But it found that cotton bags are only re-used around half that amount, making them worse than plastic on net for the environment. This is before considering the energy and water required to clean and maintain them, and the potential for negative health effects in relation to bacteria brought about by repeated use.