California’s Bag Issue

May 15, 2014
  By Terry Webber

  Director, Government Affairs

 The California Legislature prides itself in being first, even if it doesn’t
 always turn out to be right. Consensus has been surprisingly difficult
 to achieve on what would be yet another California “first”: the question
 of whether to ban single-use plastic bags statewide. Since 2010,
 every serious legislative proposal has followed the same model: ban plastic, tax paper.

The first bill (AB 1998) started with a proposed five cent per bag tax. Once the lobbyists for retailers got involved and stores were designated the beneficiaries of the tax proceeds, legislative proposals were increased to ten cents. The latest bill, SB 270, which just yesterday was approved by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, includes a proposal for a ten cent minimum tax, while some legislators made it clear they would prefer a tax of twenty five cents or higher.

As the tax keeps getting higher, bag bills get closer to the legislative majorities they need to pass. This tax will be regressive, increasing the cost of basic necessities for low-income citizens who are dependent on public transit and cannot practically expect to bring reusable bags every time they go to a retailer. As California struggles with drought and the resulting unemployment, increases in food prices, and poverty, new and increasing taxes on paper bags are not the solution.

Paper bags are not the problem the legislation is trying to solve. In fact, paper is the only bag option that is commonly accepted for recycling at curbside in California. As committee members yesterday (Wednesday, May 14) acknowledged, paper bags do not contribute to marine debris; rather they are a recyclable and sustainable packaging option for consumers who need a carryout bag. In fact, many retailers that cater specifically to environmentally-conscious consumers have already transitioned to offering only paper and reusable bags. Not only are paper bags made from recycled paper, they are highly recycled themselves and are a fixture in community recycling programs throughout the state and the rest of the country.

The new thicker plastic bags favored by SB 270 are not widely accepted for recycling and are thus more likely to end up in a landfill—exactly the result that California should want to avoid.

As California strives toward its 75 percent recycling goal and a zero-waste future, the paper bag is the only type of bag that can help meet those goals today. Legislators should rethink their rush to be first in taxing the paper bag statewide. Consensus on a sensible statewide bag policy might be easier than it seems.