The ink was barely dry on Governor Jerry Brown's signing of the nation's first single-use plastic bag ban, when the U-T San Diego newspaper asked its readers to participate in a poll on how quickly voters will repeal the law.
Brown signed Senate Bill 270 on Tuesday, echoing laws already passed in 127 California cities and counties. The law, which takes effect in July 2016, requires shoppers to use their own reusable bags or pay a small charge for bags at checkout. It will be phased in at large grocery stores and retailers like Walmart next summer, and convenience stores and pharmacies the following year.
“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,” the governor said in a written statement. “We’re the first to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last.”
The advocacy group Californians Against Waste estimates the state uses 10 billion of the throwaway bags each year. The bags are nonbiodegradeable, toxic and a danger to habitats and species from birds to plankton.
In response to manufacturer complaints that banning the thin plastic bags, which are generally used and thrown away, will cause them economic hardship, the new law provides $2 million in loans for them to transition to making heavier, reusable plastic bags.
Critics of the plastic bag ban have cited studies that claim the problem extends beyond hassle for shoppers, costs to consumers, retailers and manufacturers and a heavy hand by Big Brother. They complain it's not safe. One study that made the rounds last year claimed that reusable plastic bags were a health hazard that exposed customers to deadly E.coli.
“Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness,” a report by law professors Jonathan Klick and Joshua D. Wright, received less-than-glowing reviews from environmentalists and plastic bag ban advocates. The researchers studied emergency-room statistics in San Francisco just after the county became, in 2007, the first jurisdiction to ban plastic bags, and found a 46% rise in food-borne illness. That translated, they said, to somewhere between 5.4 and 15.8 deaths.
Dripping juices from meats mingled with fruit, vegetables and other food were said to be turning reusable bags into plastic and cloth Petri dishes teeming with bacteria. Washing reusable bags pretty much eliminates the threat, but few people do that.
Skeptics of the study noted the small statistical sampling taken over a limited time period in a single jurisdiction known for some uncommon demographics. The study was not peer reviewed. Others questioned how reusable bags would have contributed to an E. coli spike in 2007, when many stores and people were still making the transition using disposable paper bags.
Subsequent studies failed to replicate the report.
Critics also claimed that the new law was simply a power grab by stores, which will be able to charge customers lacking suitable reusable bags a dime for a paper bag that only costs them two or three cents. The Associated Press found one senior citizen who thought the charge was an unaffordable flat tax on old people who can't afford reusable bags.
Taxes, E.coli and Big Brother are almost certain to be staples of the campaign to repeal the law in the coming months. Meanwhile, plastic materials that make up 60% to 80% of the debris found in oceans and the tons of plastic that leach into groundwater from landfills will be reduced, and other states will find encouragement to join in.