The Battle Over Single-Use Grocery Bags
Clarification: Language in AB 1998 continues to change. As of today, paper bags would be available at stores for a small price.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. If California Assembly Bill 1998 is passed and becomes law, someday we'll all tell our grandchildren about the days you could go into a supermarket and get a bag to put your groceries in for free. But then we'll also have to tell them about the days when those free plastic grocery bags became piles of garbage on our beaches and streets and in our oceans. The battle over single use grocery bags is being played out in Sacramento and KPBS environment reporter Ed Joyce is here to tell us about it. Good morning, Ed.
ED JOYCE (KPBS Environment Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Ed, what exactly would AB-1998 do if it was passed?
JOYCE: Well, if it’s passed and signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger, who apparently supports this bill, it would prohibit supermarkets and convenience stores from distributing single use bags, now those are bags made of plastic, paper or other materials. It would also require the retailers to offer reusable bags for sale.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I want to remind our listeners that we’re inviting them to join the conversation. What do you think about the prospect of no free paper or plastic bags at the supermarket? You can call us at 1-888-895-5727. Now, Ed, the restrictions called for in this bill are, I would suppose, getting support from various environmental surveys. Tell us about the Trash Travels report. What do we learn from that?
JOYCE: In about 45 minutes, Environment California’s going to release a report that they’re calling Trash Travels and it’s basically going to show you what the most common types of trash found on California beaches are. It’s a report that’s written by the Ocean Conservancy and the information that they’ve gathered is based on trash collected around the world during last year’s International Coastal Clean-Up Day. And what it will show, essentially, is that we do have a lot more plastic showing up on our beaches here as well as Styrofoam and cigarette butts, incidentally, also remain one of the most collected items during these beach cleanups in California and other places on the west coast.
CAVANAUGH: And so those are the most common types of trash found on the beaches in all of California, one would imagine?
JOYCE: Yes. I think they said there was something like 71,000 plastic bags – or, no, make that 17 thou – no, 71,000 plastic bags. It’s hard to believe, that’s such a large number, but cleanup volunteers collected 71,000 plastic bags from California waterways, the ocean, and in rivers that go into the sea on Coastal Cleanup Day last year. A lot of these bags that aren’t picked up along the beaches and the waterways wash out to sea and whales, sea turtles, you know, the wildlife mistake them for food.
CAVANAUGH: Right, I was going to ask you more about that, that kind of impact. Besides just being unsightly at the beaches, what further impact do plastic bags have on the environment when they actually do go into the ocean?
JOYCE: Well, not only are there costs in terms of cleanup but the plastic pollution, just the plastic alone around the world is costing billions of dollars to clean up. It also threatens fishing because as the – as wildlife ingests these plastic (sic), they’re not available to be harvested, so to speak. It affects shipping. It can affect tourism. You know, and there’s the cost of litter collection, disposal and enforcement. It’s just – You know, we wind up paying the price for this, taxpayers. Ultimately, the cost comes to us.
CAVANAUGH: Now is the problem is mainly with plastic grocery bags, why doesn’t the government ban plastic bags and let us continue to get the paper grocery bags for free?
JOYCE: Well, it would be a difficult proposition for the government to ban the bags to start with. Just in California alone, there’s been a variety of different legislative efforts introduced to bills over the last several years to find a way to change consumer behavior regarding these plastic bags and/or retailers providing those plastic bags, so that’s been an uphill battle for starters. The paper still would – it would shift that – it would shift the emphasis a little bit but you still have the cost to collect of disposal. The bags aren’t free also, which means the consumer would be paying the cost for those bags just as much as they’re paying for the plastic bags.
CAVANAUGH: Now there are powerful industry lobbyists that are gathered to fight the idea of this ban. What significance do they have in this battle?
JOYCE: Well, this – there’s kind of an interesting twist in the legislation this year. It’s been tweaked a little bit from previous legislation. I mean, this is all an effort essentially to change behavior of the consumer partly, as well as working with the retailers with these bags as well. And in an effort to gain support from the trade associations for large grocers and retailers, this legislation apparently there’s an amendment that would preempt cities and counties from passing any local bans. Now San Francisco has a plastic bag ban, some other municipalities are moving in that direction. Now why the trade associations for the large grocers and retailers would support potentially this legislation because it would create one standard, and if something like this doesn’t pass at the state level, you’re going to see the environmental groups continue with this approach with cities and counties and municipalities for these small incremental bans in different spots – parts of the state which essentially would cause the manufacturers to have, you know, a double production line, if you will. Some areas they could have plastic bags, some areas they wouldn’t. There would be other resources in the mix. So it would cost them more potentially in the long run.
CAVANAUGH: I see. What is the City of San Diego’s policy on plastic grocery bags?
JOYCE: Well, I know the folks from Environment California were meeting with City of San Diego folks a month or so ago in this effort and they didn’t gain much traction with the City of San Diego. And Solana Beach, Encinitas, they’re – they seem to be moving a little further down the road in that regard. But if the statewide bill is passed and signed by the governor, it would – essentially those efforts locally, city, county, would go away.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with KPBS environment reporter Ed Joyce, and we’re talking about California Assembly Bill 1998, which, if it’s passed and becomes law, we will have no plastic supermarket grocery bags and we will have to pay a fee if we want to get a single use paper grocery bag at the supermarket. I’m wondering, Ed, as you told us that the idea that there’s been this compromise, that if, indeed, for a certain amount of support from the industry, the supermarket industry, this bill does not allow cities to enact their own bans on plastic grocery bags. But is that enough? Hasn’t similar legislation on efforts to reduce this kind of debris basically failed because of influential lobbyists in Sacramento?
JOYCE: That is also part of the reason sometimes the legislation is a little too stringent. There was another bill recently that would’ve charged a fee, so if we went shopping if you wanted to get a bag, it would be twenty-five cents on paper or plastic. That’s something that they found effective that worked in Ireland where they reduced plastic bag waste nearly 90% and so that was a fee. So when you go to the shopping center to buy things and it’s twenty-five cents a bag, if you’re using all those bags as some people do at some grocery stores here in San Diego, for example, I mean, you can see 10, 15 different plastic bags, multiply that by twenty-five cents. That wasn’t successful. So this new approach is seen as a way that might actually get the support of not only the legislature, Democrats and Republicans, but – and the governor as well, but some of these large grocery retailers as well. And, you know, honestly, if you go to some stores, you see these bags already available for sale, relatively inexpensive prices. You can bring your own bags. I think a lot of people have bags maybe in their trunks of their cars but often go into stores and don’t bring the bags in. Target, CVS, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Ralphs, Henry’s, these are just a few of the stores that have these bags available for use already at a nominal fee and you buy those and you can use them over and over and over and eliminate that plastic or paper.
CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Aaron is on the line from Cardiff-By-the-Sea. Good morning, Aaron, welcome to These Days.
AARON (Caller, Cardiff-By-the-Sea): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call.
CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.
AARON: I think the ban is a great idea. It makes sense because using plastic and paper bags for single use is pretty wasteful and it definitely contributes to a lot of pollution. But we live in a world where we’re so used to this kind of thing and I just wanted to hear some of the comments on how feasible it is to actually change behavior. Since we’re already used to having bags, I don’t see that this idea of actually having to pay for them at the store would change behavior so – so…
CAVANAUGH: Right. Thank you for the call, Aaron. As you mentioned, Ed, this was very successful in Ireland but there are some other European countries that haven’t had that great a success with virtually the identical push away from plastic and paper bags.
JOYCE: Right, and in this particular legislation would not have a fee. That was some legislation that failed in California in the past. This would be an outright ban basically of single use bags made of paper, plastic, anything. You would essentially, you would have to buy these other reusable bags to go to the store. There would not be a fee. They would not give you a bag and there would be a fee, I think that, you know, to move that consumer behavior in that direction. And you’ve seen some of those retailers offer little incentives. They’ll reduce – they’ll charge you if you use a bag. In some cases, some retailers are moving to that. Sometimes they’ll give you little chits to put in a box to win, you know, twenty-five bucks of groceries, that kind of thing, to encourage people to use bags in that way.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another…
JOYCE: I mean, they’ve been doing this. In a lot of European cities…
JOYCE: …they’ve been bringing their own grocery bags for decades.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear another call. Chuck is calling us from South Park. Good morning, Chuck. Welcome to These Days.
CHUCK (Caller, South Park): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. One of the questions I had has to do with the bags that are offered in stores currently. Many of them are synthetic and I’m wondering if there’s anything in the legislation having to do with banning those. It seems to me that it would be a much better thing to have a cotton bag or some type of bag that has a durability that’s going to last a while. I’ll take my comments off the air.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you, Chuck. Would you like to respond, Ed?
JOYCE: I didn’t see anything specifically related to the type of reusable bags that would be for sale. I’ve seen a variety of types in different stores. Some were that canvas kind of material, some were a cotton material. I have some pretty sturdy ones that are cotton. And you can get these bags from a variety of sources. You don’t have to buy them at the market itself. If you need to get a bag, there’s plenty of good canvas bags out there or, you know, heavier duty cotton bags.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Raymond calling from Normal Heights. Good morning, Raymond. Welcome to These Days.
RAYMOND (Caller, Normal Heights): Good morning. Thank you. I was just listening, the first argument about, you know, the trash on the beach and we heard that about the cigarette butts and we have banned cigarettes and now it’s plastic bags on the beach. Maybe we should just ban people from the beaches and that will eliminate that problem. And what about fast food restaurants? They’re going to be – What are they going to, you know, package their foods in? And every time I go into the restaurant I ask for paper and everything they put in the paper bag is plastic, wrapped in plastic. So I just don’t get it.
CAVANAUGH: That’s a good question. Thank you, Raymond. And, Ed, what about – I understand that this particular bill focuses on large supermarket chains. What about other places where people get bags and Styrofoam and plastic bags and all of that?
JOYCE: Well, they had what they call the flotilla of ocean bills in the previous legislative session that addressed fast food containers, Styrofoam and the like and it just – it did not get out of committee or it was tabled and didn’t get through the legislation. I mean, you’re talking a heavy, heavy industry lobbyist effort there, a lot of money and a lot of jobs tied into those containers. Now some places have gone to containers that are recyclable. You notice in some fast food containers or maybe some finer restaurants, for example, have containers that are recyclable. They have a code on them. They’re a little different than the Styrofoam that just winds up going off, you know, into the waste stream. So there’ve been moves to do that but that’s an uphill battle.
CAVANAUGH: Coley is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, Coley. Welcome to These Days.
COLEY (Caller, Carlsbad): Thank you very much. I just wanted to comment, first I think the comment by Raymond kind of exemplifies the persona that people are not willing to change. Unfortunately – Fortunately, I do think people are willing to change. I think plastic bags and paper bags are only one step closer. The misconception is that, you know, you can bring those paper bags home and keep using them until they wear out and the next thing they become toilet paper. Plastic bags, they come home and they – people use them to scoop their dogs’ poop. So they end up in the landfills anyway. The beauty of this bill is it will teach people to take responsibility for themselves. It’ll become second nature to them over a period of time, and we won’t have a problem with this type of waste.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Coley. And let’s go quickly to Beth in Pacific Beach. Good morning, Beth. Welcome to These Days.
BETH (Caller, Pacific Beach): Good morning. I have two comments. One is about non-grocery store plastic bags. I carry a stuffable bag in my purse so that I don’t have to carry a reusable bag into a store if I’m going clothes shopping. And that seems to really surprise the clerks when I haul that out but it’s very handy. And also, when I go in the grocery stores and I’ve forgotten to get the one out of my trunk, at least I have one reusable bag with me. But I’m wondering about grocery stores. Has anybody done a really comprehensive survey about people’s attitudes towards using reusable bags? Because it constantly surprises me how few people have them with them when – in the grocery stores.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, thank you very much. Do you know anything about that, Ed? That sounds very fascinating to take a survey like that.
JOYCE: I don’t. I think it’s, again, it’s about changing behavior and, like she mentioned, occasionally she might leave her bags in the trunk, so even people that have these reusable bags sometimes will walk into the store and not have their bags. It maybe takes you three minutes to walk back out to the car but the bags are provided so there you go. You’ve got plastic and paper…
JOYCE: …even with people that are trying to use those bags sometimes don’t do that.
CAVANAUGH: Ed, let me ask you in closing, when is this vote expected to take place?
JOYCE: The bill will be on the Assembly floor this Friday, so I can – I would imagine you’ll hear a lot about this between now and Friday, including today with this release of the Trash Travels report.
CAVANAUGH: And if it does pass in the Assembly, when – where does it go from there?
JOYCE: It would become effective January first, 2012. So it would be about a year and a half away from going into effect. That obviously gives manufacturers and retailers time to make that move and make that transition.
CAVANAUGH: Because, as you said, the governor seems as if he supports this bill.
JOYCE: Yes, that is correct.
CAVANAUGH: Ed, thank you so much for the information.
JOYCE: You’re welcome, Maureen. Happy to be with you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS environment reporter, Ed Joyce. And if you would like to comment on what you’ve heard, please do go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, conversation about the backlog of untested DNA evidence at the San Diego Crime Lab, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.