Plastic bag manufacturers may have succeeded in getting the Oakland plastic bag ban overturned in court. But, a newly enacted ban on plastic and compostable point-of-sale bags in Malibu, Calif., is a reminder that the battle is far from over and that litter concerns — and not the total environmental impact of disposable carryout bags — are driving the bans.
``I think it is pretty clear that this issue isn't just an environmental fad,'' said Bryan Early, plastic waste reduction campaign coordinator for Californians Against Waste in Sacramento, Calif. ``Local governments are genuinely worried about the costs of plastic bag pollution, especially communities surrounding impaired waterways that are required by state and federal law to reach strict zero-trash levels. There still is a lot of momentum out there.''
The Malibu ban comes just eight days after California Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, doubled the benchmark for the amount of plastic bags that needed to be recycled during 2010 from 35 percent to 70 percent in his proposed bill, AB 2058. That bill aims to amend the mandated in-store recycling bill he sponsored that went into effect last July.
The new version of AB 2058, which has passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee, would require retailers to charge at least 25 cents for plastic carryout bags by July 1, 2011, if they don't meet the 70 percent diversion rate for the 12-month period from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2010. The current state law prohibits taxes or fees on the plastic bags and prevents retailers from charging for them as well.
AB 2058 also would require stores to charge customers at least 25 cents for paper carryout bags after July 1, 2011. Under California procedure, the bill has to move to the Assembly by May 23 to be considered during this legislation session.
Elsewhere, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed a 20-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags to reduce the 360 million disposable bags used annually in the city. The proposal, which has not been formally introduced, would go into effect Jan. 1.
The Malibu ban was passed unanimously May 12 and will become law 30 days after a second vote is taken May 27. Compliance with the ban would go into effect Dec. 26 for city facilities, food vendors and the approximately 60 grocery stores and pharmacies in the city. The compliance date is June 26, 2009, for all remaining retailers, vendors and nonprofit vendors in the city, which has 21 miles of coastline and 12,575 residents.
There is a one-year exemption if a retailer can prove the provisions of the bill would cause ``undue hardship.''
It is the first ban enacted since Alameda County Superior Judge Frank Roesch overturned the ban in Oakland April 17, saying there was ``substantial evidence'' to support an argument that single-use paper bags are more environmentally damaging than plastic bags.
If not challenged, Malibu would be the second U.S. city with a bag ban, joining San Francisco, whose plastic bag ban went into effect Nov. 20.
What sets the Malibu ban apart from the San Francisco law and the Oakland law that was overturned is that it also applies to compostable bags made from bioresins, and that all retailers, not just supermarkets and pharmacies that have more than 10,000 square feet, must comply.
The city of Malibu said on its Web site that it included compostable bags in its ban because there are no Southern California facilities that can recycle compostable bags. At the same time, Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich has asked city officials to study whether it should impose a fee on paper bags to encourage the use of reusable bags.
``Cities are starting to see that this is a litter and waste issue because they have goals of zero waste,'' said Sarah Jacobsen, director of coastal resources for the environmental group, Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, Calif. ``This type of ban will help them get to that.''
Santa Monica has a proposed bill patterned after the Malibu ban, but additionally, it would require grocery stores to charge shoppers a fee for paper bags. The California counties of Sonoma and Mendocino and the California cities of Berkeley, Desert Palm, Burbank, San Jose, Richmond, South San Francisco and Fremont also are considering plastic bag bans, as well as Seattle.
The California cities of Fairfield and Palo Alto withdrew proposed bans earlier this year because of lawsuit fears and a number of cities across the U.S. have switched to voluntary or mandated in-store recycling programs after originally considering bans.
Along with California, Chicago, New York City, and Westchester County, N.Y., and the cities of Albany and Suffolk in New York have mandated in-store recycling programs. Chicago enacted its mandate May 14 and it goes into effect in six months for stores with more than 5,000 square feet of space. Nine months later, all other retailers will have to comply. New York's mandate goes into effect in late July, Westchester's Oct. 21, Albany's in late November and Suffolk Jan. 1.
``The national movement to recycle plastic bags is gaining momentum,'' said Steve Russell, managing director for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va. ``When communities do their homework and consider all the facts, they choose plastic bag recycling because it makes sense for the environment and the economy.'' ACC did not comment specifically on the Malibu ban.
But the insistence of the plastic bag industry that recycling can resolve the issue only underscores the disconnect between the industry and the proponents of bag bans, said Stephanie Barger, executive director of Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif.
``What the industry doesn't understand is that this is not a recycling issue,'' Barger said. ``Recycling is not what we are concerned about. This movement comes out of the burden that plastic bags are putting on the communities, the waste stream and litter. 80 percent of litter is plastic, 86 percent of ocean debris is plastic. People are getting fed up with this disposal society.''
Jacobsen agreed that the industry's recycling initiatives through in-store recycling and the placement of recycling bins on beaches — 529 on 25 state beaches since last November — won't get the job done.
``There is no way to recycle your way out of this litter problem,'' she said. ``Even if you recycle 60 percent of plastic carryout bags, you are still leaving a lot of bags out there,'' as California uses an estimated 19 billion annually, including 6 billion in Los Angeles County alone.
``We are trying to prevent plastic bags from becoming litter,'' added Early. ``If industry can get together and get the recycling rate to a reasonable level, such as the 65 percent reduction target that L.A. County has set for 2013, I think that will go a long way in getting these bags out of the environment. But for a lot of municipalities, a ban is more cost-effective.''
Yet, even in the cities and states considering bans or bag fees, there are often conflicting views on what is the right action.
A public opinion poll conducted by Elway Research Inc. in Seattle for Seattle Public Utilities found 89 percent of the residents polled would prefer stores voluntarily reduce their use of disposable bags and 77 percent would require stores to have recycling bins. Only 41 percent supported a fee on plastic bags, with 56 percent against one.
In addition, the poll found 63 percent opposed a ban on plastic bags, and that 80 percent of those who were opposed to a ban preferred plastic bags.
Based on what happened when Ireland placed a tax on plastic carryout bag in March 2002, bag fees will not work, said Sharon Kneiss, vice president of the products division of ACC, in responding to the Oakland proposal.
She pointed out that the tax in Ireland reduced plastic grocery bag use by 90 percent, but that overall plastic bag use rose by 400 percent as residents purchased new plastic bags instead of reusing grocery bag.