logo

California, Rhode Island and Hawaii legislatures eye plastic bag bans

By: Gayle S. Putrich

March 8, 2013

WASHINGTON — As the ranks of counties and cities implementing bans, fees or taxes on plastic bags continue to grow, several state legislators are taking the enthusiasm for those ordinances as a sign that it's time for statewide bans.

California, Rhode Island and Hawaii are all making a 2013 run at being the first to ban plastic bags statewide.

In California, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) introduced legislation in February that would prohibit large retail stores there from providing single-use carryout bags to customers beginning in 2015. Starting in July 2016, the ban would extend to convenience stores and other small businesses. Freshman assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) has introduced his own version of the measure, which is expected to merge eventually with the Padilla bill.

It will be California's seventh run at a plastic bag ban, but supporters who have repeatedly seen the effort fail say this time will be different.

Padilla is a seasoned Latino legislator from an urban district and this version of the bill has found support from the California Grocers Association and other such groups hoping for statewide rules to ease the confusion of sorting through a patchwork of local rules and their many variations. Courts have repeatedly upheld bag ordinances as legal in California. Democrats, typically bag-ban supporters, have increased their majorities in both chambers.

And most importantly, said Californians Against Waste's executive director, Mark Murray, people have gotten used to the idea.

"When San Francisco led the way on this [in 2007], it was kind of an out-there idea," he said. "But now we're seeing this happen in a broad stretch of the state. About one-third of the state's population is covered by one of these ordinances. Even in the LA suburbs this is the law of the land, and there hasn't been a rebellion.

"This is happening," Murray said. "This is already a done deal."

Citizens of Hawaii are used to the idea of taking their own bags to the grocery store, but that has not eased the path for a bill introduced by state Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona.

All of Hawaii's five counties have enacted individual countywide plastic bag bans, effectively banning them in the entire state by next year. Health-care provider Kaiser Permanente stopped using plastic bags on the islands in February, offering paper bags on request only. But no state has successfully pushed a ban or tax through its legislature, and it looks like that will continue to include Hawaii.

Lowen said her proposed statewide single-use bag fee, which would ban plastic bags and implement a fee for paper bags that would go to the state's natural resources department, does not have enough support at the statehouse to become law.

"Having a bill in the works is always a good way to keep the conversation going," Lowen said. "And we need to keep talking about waste here."

While county measures will reduce waste, they do not do enough for Hawaii, she said, where landfill space is extremely limited and bags — paper or plastic — have to be imported at a high cost, she said.

In Rhode Island, Rep. Maria Cimini, D-Providence, is also realistic about her bag ban bill's prospects.

"It's very rare that things pass the first year they're introduced," she said. "Then again, this is the kind of bill that could end up moving quickly. It's hard to predict." As proposed, her bill would ban plastic bags and require a 10-cent fee on paper bags to ease the cost burden for retailers. Even if her measure fails the first time out, Cimini said it is important to get the conversation started and she would be likely to introduce it again.

"As a legislator, very rarely do we come to the table with a full knowledge base," she said. "I'm not an expert in plastics and I'm not an expert in recycling. But holding a hearing is one of the tools that I have as a legislator. I can convene the experts and start a conversation to figure out the best answer for Rhode Island." A hearing on Cimini's bill is expected sometime before the end of April.

That statewide proposal faces opposition from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp., which runs the state's successful plastic bag recycling program, ReStore.

Dave Asselin, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, said bag recycling has been in place since 2005 there and seems to be working for Rhode Island.

"Rhode Island has a great track record with recycling and we would much rather see the state Legislature there focus their efforts on public information and plastic bag recycling," Asselin said.

The alliance, which represents a group of U.S. plastic bag manufacturers, is tracking state and local efforts to bag bans and frequently offers written or in- person testimony at hearings, Asselin said.

"Our preferred way that states should be looking at plastics bags … is in terms of recycling," he said. "And there are many states that do that, very successfully. It is very possible."