California lawmakers give final approval to plastic bag ban

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Alex Padilla

A statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in California is just a signature away.

The California Senate passed Senate Bill 270 22-15 late in the evening on the body's last day in session on Aug. 29. The Assembly passed the bill a day earlier 44-29. The measure was written by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacioma).

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is expected to sign the bill into law, which will be the first of its kind in the country.

Under the measure, single-use plastic bags will be barred from California retailers, including grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores, as of July 1, 2015. Customers will be able to buy paper bags for 10 cents each, or bring their own bags and not be charged. The bill has a couple of exceptions, including one for produce at stores.

Various forms of the bill have been in front of the California legislature over the last 10 years, always being defeated for one reason or another. Last year, the bill came three votes shy of passage.

An initial Assembly vote faltered earlier when a key labor group representing grocery store workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), pulled its support and cried foul on the minimum 10-cent fee retailers would be able to charge for paper or reusable bags, which was added by amendment late in the legislative process.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly said the fee would burden consumers in the hour-long debate before the vote, but the seven Democrats who voted no or abstained earlier in the week swung back to the “aye” column after the UFCW reinstated its support for the bill.

One change to the bill in the three days between votes, according to a Padilla staffer, included taking what was initially a $2 million grant pool within California’s recycling funds for plastic bag makers would be able to apply for grants to retrain workers or reorganize operations to make bags that would meet the new state-wide requirements in the bill and turning it instead into a loan program.

The original program was included as a way to woo legislators who opposed version of the bill from previous year on the grounds that the bill and its tax would be a job killer.  Plastic and paper bag manufacturers still opposed the legislation, with the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) launching a major advertising and lobbying blitz against the bill in the weeks before the vote.

"It's disappointing that members of the Assembly voted to advance a bill that threatens 2,000 California manufacturing jobs, hurts consumers and puts billions of dollars into the pockets of grocers -- without providing any benefit to the environment," said Lee Califf, executive director of APBA, in a statement between the Assembly and Senate votes.

There are 123 municipal and county bag bans are already in effect across California, impacting some 10 million consumers there, according to Californians Against Waste (CAW), one of the bill’s biggest supporters.

“California leads the way to end plastic bags," Mark Murray, CAW executive director, said on Twitter after the final vote was taken. "Forty years ago there were no plastic bags grocery bags; four years from now, we'll forget there ever were.”

Similar state-wide bans were considered in Washington state and Massachusetts earlier this year but did not pass. Although not a statewide ban, all five counties in Hawaii outlaw single-use plastic bags at retail stores.