25-cent charge for plastic bags proposed

August 28, 2008 7:38:42 PM PDT
Plastic bags are light and durable, but they are the scourge of many communities across the state, often ending up along the roadside or in landfills. A bill working its way through the California legislature would tax those bags to make up the costs. However, not everyone is on board with the idea.

"Twenty-five billion single-use bags are distributed to Californians every single year," said Mark Murray with Californians Against Waste, a non-profit environmental research and advocacy group.

The majority of those bags go right out the door of your local grocery store and end up at the dump. The rest do not make it that far, and ultimately end up as litter.

Murray says the golden state needs to ditch plastic bags altogether.

"Californians are spending more than a half-billion dollars every year in form of higher grocery costs to cover the cost of paying for all these so-called free single-use bags," said Murray.

And if Murray gets his way, Californians will pay more. That is because he believes retailers should cover the cost of cleaning up plastic bags in the environment.

Southern California lawmaker Lloyd Levine, a Democrat from Van Nuys, would like consumers to pay 20 to 25 cents per bag for every plastic bag grocery stores give out. The proceeds would go back to cities and counties to clean up plastic bag waste.

"It seeks to reduce the number of plastic bags in California. We have a huge environmental problem with plastic bags," said Levine.

Assemblyman Levine says it costs Californians $300 million to clean up the plastic bags from storm drains, sewer systems, beaches and waterways. The goal of the bill is simple, if you reduce the waste you will reduce the cost of cleanup for cities and counties.

It is not a new idea. An environmental assessment by San Francisco estimated that the cost of cleanup for plastic bags in the city was about 17 to 20 cents a bag.

"Back in 2005, Ireland instituted a 19-cent fee on bags and in a matter of months the use of bags had dropped about 90 percent. So there's no question that fees work," said Mark Westlund with the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

San Francisco ultimately decided to ban all plastic bags at large grocery and drugstores. The program went into effect in March.

"We figure that we have probably reduced 75 million bags from our waste stream," said Westlund.

But not everyone agrees a bag tax is needed.

"We just feel that it is premature," said Dave Heylan with the California Grocers Association which is among the opponents of the Levine bill.

Last year, the state mandated that all stores that offer plastic bags must provide a place to recycle them. It also says that stores make reusable bags available.

"We thought it was a fair, effective bill, and now here we are a year later, we haven't even begun to see results in numbers and we're already looking at changing the requirements," said Heylan.

The first data on the bag reduction plan will not even be available until later this year.

"We think the best approach is recycling plastic bags," said Keith Christman with the American Chemistry Council which has a launched a campaign to kill the bag bill. "What happens when you ban plastic bags is people switch to the alternatives, in this case paper bags, and paper bags require twice as much energy and twice as much greenhouse gas emission and produces 80 percent more waste."

Christman says environmental concerns can be mitigated if more people recycled old bags.

"Plastic bags don't belong in the environment, they belong in the recycling bin when we finish using them and that's what we work to promote," said Christman.

Plastic bag opponents say both paper and plastic bag waste can be done away with easily.

"The most cost-effective option for the state of California, for consumers, is for consumers to bring their own bag to the store," said Murray.

Since San Francisco instituted its bag ban, more people are bringing their own reusable bags when they shop.

"Reusable bags are a great option, but not necessarily the best option for all families though, larger families, sometimes difficult to bring reusable bags on a regular basis," said Christman.

Murray says the industry will find any excuse to kill this bill.

"These folks recognize that a solution that's adopted in California to reduce the number of bags is likely to be replicated across the country," said Murray.

Here's some food for thought. In the United States alone, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil are required to produce the 100 billion plastic bags used annually.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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