While I struggled to come up with the best way to open this column and introduce Plastics News' year-long project on California's bag ban referendum, I worried about sounding cantankerous or too resistant to change or old-fashioned.
I didn't want to sound too much, I told Editor Don Loepp, like commentator and journalist Andy Rooney, who was known for spouting his opinions, sometimes angrily, from behind his typewriter, especially in his later years.
But maybe someone like Andy Rooney is exactly who we need to hear from on this matter. His commentary would have started: “Did you ever wonder why California can't decide whether to ban plastic bags…?”
Maybe it's because there is not an obvious, environmentally friendly alternative.
Producing and recycling paper bags have an even more abysmal effect on the environment. And not everyone remembers to wash their reusable bags often enough, if at all, spreading bacteria and potentially illness.
Maybe it's because studies have repeatedly shown that single-use plastic bags from grocery stores only make up between 0.06 and 2 percent of the litter found in the United States, including on beaches and in storm drains. So the cost of implanting a bag ban — estimated to be close to $1 billion, when the water used to wash reusable bags is considered — doesn't entirely seem to be worth the very little environmental good or the lost consumer convenience or manufacturing jobs.
Maybe it's because people have found so many ways to reuse them, from lining the bathroom trash can to picking up after pets, or because industry has found so many ways to recycle them, like Winchester, Va.-based Trex Co. Inc., which has been collecting bags in California's dry cleaners, independent grocery stores, hospitals, and San Diego's Petco Park since 2008 and turning them into wood-alternative decking.
Maybe it's the lack of a sensible alternative that explains why it took the California state legislature more than nine tries over nearly a dozen years to finally get a bag ban through. And even then, the bill nearly died, only to be shocked back to life on the Assembly floor with a last-minute deal that would put bag fee funds in store-owners pockets … and still ended up not being implemented.
Instead, the matter of banning bags will be posed to the voters next year.
Maybe all of these reasons are why the California city of Huntington Beach has repealed its ban on plastic bags, why the City Council in Oceanside, Calif., rejected a bag ban in October and why statewide bans have repeatedly failed in Washington and Massachusetts and why Arizona has a state law banning bag bans.
“Just think about that,” says a voice in my head that sounds very much like the venerable Mr. Rooney's. “Other states are banning bans, yet in California nearly $4 million already has been spent by both sides to fight over a product that is not illegal, is not harmful to humans, has hundreds of uses, provides U.S. manufacturing jobs and is not as bad for the environment as the alternatives.”
Like Christmas, elections seems to come earlier and earlier every cycle (something else of which Mr. Rooney and I both deeply disapprove), and the California bag ban is no exception. Both those in favor and against SB 270 have already been slugging it out with ads and on the Internet for more than a year.
Now, with Election Day 2016 just a year away, Plastics News is jumping into the fray. We plan on keeping our readers updated monthly over the next year, and immediately when big bag news breaks.
Because after more than 10 years, the uproar over single-use plastic bags long stopped being about the environment and instead has become a battle of ideology and emotions.
Putrich is Plastics News' Washington-based staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @gsputrich.