California Advances Bills to Ban Thicker, Reusable Plastic Bags That It Previously Required

Move would force grocery stores to go back to paper bags and likely be worse for the environment

It seems that California’s plastic bag ban has been a failure, but that is not stopping lawmakers from trying to impose a second bag ban.

California first adopted a statewide ban on “single-use” plastic bags with the passage of Senate Bill 270 in 2014. After being held up by a referendum in November 2016, voters narrowly approved Proposition 67, thereby implementing SB 270. As a recent Mercury News report revealed, however, Democratic lawmakers who had plastic bag factories in their districts successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a provision in the bill that would allow the use of thicker plastic bags marked as recyclable.

However, people treated the thicker, “reusable” plastic bags the same as the previous “single-use” bags, which was entirely predictable. Plastic bag use is now greater than it was before the ban. Moreover, as an August 2023 Los Angeles Times article noted, not a single recycling center in California accepts the thicker, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bags anyway.

Now, a pair of identical bills, SB 1053 and Assembly Bill 2236, would ban those thicker plastic bags and force grocery stores and retailers to sell paper bags made from at least 50 percent recycled paper for a minimum of 10 cents apiece, or reusable bags made of cloth or other washable textiles. The bills have each passed their respective chambers and are now under consideration in the opposite chamber.

So we are apparently going back to using paper bags, which, if you are old enough to recall, we were once told were not environmentally friendly, and we were scolded for using them because their manufacture required killing too many trees. In fact, those “single-use” plastic bags did have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than paper bags—and they had the added benefit of not ripping and dropping heavy loads of groceries as easily as the paper ones. (It should also be noted that the “single-use” moniker was always a misnomer, as people tended to use them to line trash bins, pick up pet waste, and store and carry a number of items after their initial use.)

In a 2013 San Diego Union-Tribune column, I asserted:

The claims that plastic bags are worse for the environment than paper bags or cotton reusable bags are dubious at best. In fact, compared to paper bags, plastic grocery bags produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, require 70 percent less energy to make, generate 80 percent less waste, and utilize less than 4 percent of the amount of water needed to manufacture them. This makes sense because plastic bags are lighter and take up less space than paper bags.

Reusable bags come with their own set of problems. They, too, have a larger carbon footprint than plastic bags. Even more disconcerting are the findings of several studies that plastic bag bans lead to increased health problems due to food contamination from bacteria that remain in the reusable bags.

In fact, according to a 2018 Danish government study, one would have to reuse a paper bag 43 times to equal the environmental performance of a “single-use” plastic bag (like the ones California already banned), a thicker polyethylene plastic bag (like the ones legislators are now trying to ban) 35 to 84 times, and an organic cotton bag 20,000 times. So, banning plastic bags will likely have a worse net effect on the environment. The substantial increase in the water needed to produce the paper bags that would largely replace them under the proposed laws seems doubly foolish for a state prone to periodic (and often severe) droughts.

Moreover, banning the existing thicker plastic bags will only prompt consumers to buy more plastic bags to replace the ones they used to use for their trash can, pet waste, and other needs. This is precisely what happened not only here in California after the previous ban but also in places like New Jersey, Ireland, and the Australian Capital Territory (where the capital of Canberra is located) after they instituted similar plastic bag bans.

California state Senator Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas) and Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) recently wrote a Sacramento Bee column arguing for their bills, SB 1053 and AB 2236, respectively. In their piece, the politicians decried “our culture of plastic consumption.” They noted that a wide variety of plastics have been found “in our oceans and waterways.” The language they used suggests that not only is plastic pollution a substantial problem, but also that “we” in California and the United States more broadly are major contributors to that problem. But a little perspective is in order here.

Despite having the largest economy in the world and the third-largest population, the United States emits less than 1 percent of its plastic waste into the ocean. Moreover, the U.S. is responsible for just 0.25 percent of all plastic waste emitted to the ocean (and, of course, California accounts for only a small fraction of this total). That is less than half of the plastic waste emitted by tiny Panama (which accounts for 0.53 percent of ocean waste) and only about one-third of Guatemala’s total (0.73 percent). In fact, approximately half of all plastic waste emitted to the ocean comes from the Philippines (36.4 percent) and India (12.9 percent). Other top polluters include Malaysia (7.5 percent), China (7.2 percent), and Indonesia (5.8 percent).

So it is not the large, industrialized nations like the United States that are primarily responsible for plastic waste ending up in the oceans; rather, it is the poorer, industrializing nations—particularly in Asia—that do not have adequate waste management infrastructures. Thus, punishing Californians by (once again) dictating how they should carry their groceries to their cars and into their homes will have no significant effect on plastic pollution in the oceans and, as noted above, is likely to actually be counterproductive for the environment.

If California’s previous plastic bag ban, and others around the country and the globe, have taught us anything, it is that these prohibitions are less about the environment and more about control and virtue signaling: control over how we live our daily lives (in this case, through the decision of what kinds of bags in which we may carry our food and other goods) and control over our minds, through the propaganda that falsely claims that this sacrifice will save the lives of untold numbers of cute sea turtles and other marine life.

Until Californians stop electing preening busybodies intent on meddling with and micromanaging people’s lives with harmful and suffocating mandates, however, we can expect still more pointless nanny-state laws to come out of the formerly Golden State.

Adam Summers is a Research Fellow with the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute.
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