California Senate Bill 270, passed by the state legislature and signed into law in September, would ban many retail stores from dispensing single-use plastic bags as of July 1, 2015. But in another example of a special interest perverting democracy when it does not get its way, the Plastics Industry Trade Association (SPI) has announced it has collected over 800,000 signatures to qualify for a statewide up-or-down vote in November 2016. Once that tally is confirmed, the July ban would be postponed until the following year.
You probably saw the sign gatherers at stores such as Target, where I was greeted with an appeal to sign my name and take sides with the “American Progressive Bag Alliance” in order to reverse this “backdoor deal” -- until the fellow with the clipboard saw my reusable bags. “Oh, you’re one of those,” he said with an eye-roll, because as you know, someone like me who likes to wear labels, shops at Costco and makes mac-and-cheese out of a box (when no one is looking) is such a hippie.
So why do I support the bag ban? Why should California stick to its guns?
If plastic bags were 100% recyclable, I would also think SB 270 would be silly and a waste of time. The SPI insists it is a vanguard of plastics recycling in the U.S., but the statistics just do not back up the talk. At best, only 12 percent of plastic bags, wraps and sacks were recycled in 2012; overall plastic waste was recycled at a rate of nine percent. Sure, the quick answer is to pass the buck to manufacturers, retailers and consumers and charge them with the responsibility of recycling. But if plastic bag recycling made economic sense, it would become the norm.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. As one Maine newspaper reported, Portland city officials weighed the costs and benefits of recycling plastic bags. Many plastics can fetch up to $500 a ton; paper a maximum of $100 a ton. But plastic bags at best can reap $5 a ton—and that is a lot of plastic bags, not including those that get stuck in conveyer belts and gears as most businesses and municipalities have adopted co-mingled recycling.
If plastic bags had value, as in a dime or quarter fee per bag, that could boost incentives all around for recycling. But that is not occurring anytime soon. Cities are tired of the excess work involved in burying or recycling them, so they are banning them.
Another laughable objection the SPI has is its complaint about the alleged background deal between grocers and unions to ram SB 270 through the legislature: as if it is terrible for supermarket chains to profit off the sales of bags at a dime a piece. What the plastics industry does not talk about is the cost to taxpayers to landfill plastic bags, clean them up from storm drains and the cost to retailers.
The idea that the plastic industry will suffer from this bag ban is as equally absurd as out-of-state interests using their influence to reverse a law passed by legislators who were elected by Californians. Indeed, plastic has its role in preventing the spread of infectious diseases; making everything from factory equipment to vehicles lighter and more efficient; and has great qualities ranging from water resistance to adhesiveness. But plastic bags offer more mess and clean-up than value, so they are going away. If the plastics industry had taken more responsibility for their product, no laws would have been enacted in the first place. We moved on from the decline in buggy whips and slide rules; we will do the same with less plastic bags around. So let the stores profit; and get in the habit of keeping reusable bags in the trunk. We’re all better off with less trash around.
Image credit:Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.