State Not Ready For Ban On Plastic Shopping Bags


One of the more innovative and far-reaching environmental proposals was defeated by the State Senate this week, with the help of half a dozen Democrats, including Davis’ Senator Lois Wolk.  The measure would have banned plastic carryout bags in supermarkets, drug and convenience stores.  The measure failed 21 votes against, to 14 votes in favor.
According to supporters of the bill, landfills are filled with 19 billion plastic bags a year.  Key lawmakers suggested that it would be just too costly a measure.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, from Santa Monica, was the bill’s sponsor and she expressed disappointment.
“This is a sad day for California,” Assemblywoman Brownley said.  “Communities across the state were waiting for the state to adopt a uniform, statewide ban on single-use bags before they adopt their own ordinances. The state failed them. But, this is an environmental movement that won’t be stopped, even by big-money interests like the American Chemistry Council. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when consumers bring their own bags and become good stewards of the environment.”
In the meantime, according to a release from the Aseemblywoman, shoppers in California will encounter a confusing array of bag bans and restrictions that vary from city to city and county to county. For this reason, the California Grocers Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the California Labor Federation, the California Retailers Association and other business groups supported AB 1998.
Californians spend $25 million a year to collect and dispose of many of the 19 billion single-use plastic bags used by residents of the state every year. Local governments also spend money cleaning up the bags. For example, in 1994, the annual cost to clean 31 miles of beaches along Los Angeles County was over $4 million.
Four cities already have bans in place: San Francisco, Palo Alto, Fairfax and Malibu. Other communities that recently announced they are preparing to adopt bag ban ordinances, include Los Angeles County, Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach.
AB 1998 would have banned single-use carryout bags, beginning in 2012 for supermarkets and pharmacies, and in 2013 for liquor stores and convenience stores. The measure would have allowed stores to give away reusable bags for free until the ban took effect, after which shoppers who forget their own bags would have been able to buy reusable bags at the stores. The stores also would have been allowed to sell recycled paper bags of 40 percent post-consumer material at cost, not for any profit.
Stores would have been required to provide reusable or recycled paper bags to shoppers who cannot afford them.
AB 1998 promoted new green jobs for reusable bag makers, and would have established a grant and loan program from existing state funds to retain jobs in California for the manufacture of reusable, durable plastic bags. A grocery store recycling program for plastic bags that currently is in place would have been extended under the legislation.
Marine debris has injured or killed 267 species of wildlife worldwide. Plastic bags have been found in the stomachs of whales, birds and sea turtles, who mistake them for jellyfish. The bags also contribute to the great Pacific Gyre, a huge cauldron of plastic bits that float in an area twice the size of Texas out in the Pacific Ocean.
Senator Lois Wolk told the Bee that she would not support this bill.  “I prefer that we begin with incentives, and if that doesn’t work, move to mandates,” she said. “This is a windfall for the retailers.”
Senator Wolk added that recycled grocery bags cost 6 to 10 cents each, a cost now absorbed by grocers that they would pass on to consumers if the legislation passed.
At a news conference at the State Capitol earlier, Assemblymember Brownley was joined by leaders from the California Grocers Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers union and various environmental organizations, as well as a trio of Hollywood actresses, Amy Smart, Rosario Dawson and Rachelle LeFevre.
“By passing AB 1998, California signals the nation its commitment to wean itself from a costly single-use carryout bag habit that’s threatening marine life and spoiling our waterways,” said Assemblywoman Brownley.
Last week, the Assemblywoman amended her bill  to protect jobs, offer no-cost and low-cost choices for carrying purchases, and preserve a convenient plastic recycling program.
AB 1998, as amended in the Senate Rules Committee, enables plastic bag makers in California to switch to production of environmentally-sound, reusable and washable bags, while protecting oceans, rivers and lakes from devastating plastic bag pollution.
“California is poised to lead a national movement against plastic bag pollution that is injuring and killing marine life and imposing a costly blight on our cities and open spaces,” Assemblywoman Brownley said. “This is a strong bill that safeguards the environment, protects California jobs and gives consumers a no-cost option to carry their purchases. It has the support of a historic coalition: consumers, environmentalists, unions, grocers, retailers, cities and counties.”
The problem with bills of these sorts is that our economic system takes into account only certain factors in cost.  There is no externality cost added for environmental degradation, clean up efforts, etc.  Thus it is easy for Senator Wolk, who has a strong environmental record, to talk about how much money will be passed on to consumers while ignoring how much money current policies cost taxpayers at various government entities in clean up costs.
The reason is simple.  The costs of clean up are separated from the cost of purchasing the product, but if it were attached it might be clear or at least more clear that such measures would save money in the long run.
Clearly, California is not ready for such a strong progressive message, but this is an issue that perhaps our community can look into.  Moving toward reusable bags and changing the culture will eventually save us all money, while helping the environment.  It is just a matter of changing our habits.
—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Doug Minnis

    I am very sorry this did not pass. The concept that” the state is not ready…” is probably not true. I seldom disagree with Lois Wolk. On this one I sure do. “Incentives” is a stall. There is already an incentive at the Nugget for using reusables. Nor has it been effective to use reusable bags as a way of modeling. The ” shame on you” implyed by using reusable bags doesn’t turn a head. I think we are going to have to do some evry hard lobbying to beat the chemical companies who profit from this wastefu and unnecessary hazzard to the environment

  2. E Roberts Musser

    Proponents of plastic bags insisted on them in place of paper bags, to save trees. Now these same environmentalists are pushing to go back to paper bags as preferable to plastic bag use. Ironic. Note the necessity of having paper bags ready for those who are low income and forget to bring reusable bags, making the reusable bag system cumbersome (you have to have your income checked at the check-out counter?). If this program of reusable bags is so popular, then why aren’t people embracing the reusable bag concept without being forced? I agree with Senator Wolk – let’s try incentives rather than forcing this program down people’s throats.

  3. David M. Greenwald

    [quote]Proponents of plastic bags insisted on them in place of paper bags, to save trees. Now these same environmentalists are pushing to go back to paper bags as preferable to plastic bag use. [/quote]

    Most aren’t.
    If this program of reusable bags is so popular, then why aren’t people embracing the reusable bag concept without being forced?[/quote]

    Have you been to a grocery store in Davis lately? I see a lot of people – indeed an increasing number of people doing exactly that. But it’s a habit. I go to the store and I often forget to bring my reusable bag. The more I do it, the more often I will remember.

    I think there are ways to deal with the issue of low income, often I have seen stores provide inducements for using reusable bags, discounts, sometimes they’ll give free bags away. There are ways around your concern. The question is how we can get there.

  4. 2cowherd

    I too am disappointed in Lois Wolk’s stance on AB 1998. If she is sincere about “incentives” let’s see her introduce a plastic bag ban bill next session with some meaningful incentives

  5. Dr. Wu

    These plastics don’t degrade and, as you stated, many find there way into marine ecosystems where they are extremely dangerous. You might add that the plastic used to keep six packs together are also very dangerous to marine life. The landfill issue is a second or order issue but the threat to marine life which already faces mercury and other toxins, overfishing, reduced calcium carbonate (due to global warming) and many other threats is real.

    Unfortunately many people don’t realize this. There are times when we do need the state to help us do the right thing. I don’t use plastic bags but I often forget to bring along canvas bags when I should. The incentives now in place at Whole Foods and other stores are quite trivial (esp when one considers the average income of a Whole Foods or Nugget shopper) and don’t work. In Britain they tend to give out plastic bags very sparingly at most stores (I don’t believe its a law–merchants are just more stingy) and it seems to help, but in the US, where excess rules, we need help. Do we have the right to use a product which kills other species? I don’t think so.

  6. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “I go to the store and I often forget to bring my reusable bag. The more I do it, the more often I will remember.”

    So you need the state to punish you into compliance? If you believe in this issue, why are you not adhering to it religiously for the good of the environment? How difficult is it to keep a set of surplus reusable bags in your car in case you forgot to bring previous ones? Or is it that if the state starts charging money for the use of plastic bags, you can afford the cost if you happen to forget to bring your reusable bags?

    Here’s an idea – how about recycling at the dump, and take the plasic bags out of the mix completely, and recyle them? Many cities do this sort of recycling – at the dump on site.

    Dr. Wu: “Unfortunately many people don’t realize this. There are times when we do need the state to help us do the right thing. I don’t use plastic bags but I often forget to bring along canvas bags when I should.”

    If you truly believe in this cause, then you won’t forget.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    You want to use the term punish, which is interesting. I prefer educate and incentivize. Educate people on the harm that bags do, give them alternatives and incentives to use those alternatives and form new habits. How about a tax break for companies that provide reusable bags to consumers? Maybe that will capture the conservative ethos better.

  8. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”In the meantime, according to a release from the [u]Aseemblywoman[/u], shoppers in California will encounter a [b]confusing[/b] array of bag bans and restrictions that vary from city to city and county to county.”[/i]

    Do you actually think there is one live human being who is actually confused by a municipal bag ban? I don’t. This is not a source of confusion for anyone. It harms your argument to repeat that statement, even if a silly Aseeeeemlbywoman made it.

    Every city in our area permits stores to provide whatever shopping bags they want. But if suddenly Davis banned plastic bags, do you think people who live in West Sacramento, Woodland and Dixon, where those bags are allowed would be thrust into a state of confusion? “Gee-willikers, I can use a plastic bag here in Dixon, or when I goes over yonder to Woodland. But in betweens, in that there Davis, I can’t get a plastic bag. I am soooo confused.”

  9. Dr. Wu


    Having stores pay the true cost of a bag is not punishing them, its proper economics (right out of econ 101).

    Even if I was a perfect human being (and I assure you I am not) my own actions and those of a small group would not make a difference. One could use the same logic with global warming. Should we rely on the kindness of strangers to reduce global warming? If so, then we are in trouble.

    I am generally not in favor of heavy govt intrusion but this is an area where it makes sense. A ban is very easy to enforce (much easier than “incentives”). It would not place retailers in a situation where if they try and do the right thing shoppers will go elsewhere. In my opinion it does not place an overly onerous burden on us. I’d also favor laws which reduce the huge amount of packaging that we are inundated with.

    There are times when state intervention makes sense–insuring the quality of our food (we could improve in some cases here) is another example. Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a knee-kerk environmentalist nor do I believe that govt can solve all of our problems. But a ban on plastic bags makes sense to me.

  10. Rich Rifkin

    I think the ocean waste argument might be the most compelling in this issue. However, my guess is that if you scooped up a representative sample of the plastics in the ocean, almost none of it (as a percentage of the volume of plastic) would be from plastic grocery bags. In other words, by banning plastic bags (globally), you would not make a dent in the problem of plastics floating in the oceans.

    What is not compelling–essentially for the same reason–is the notion that plastic bags are choking our landfills. That’s just false. “Plastic grocery bags and all plastic retail bags together only take up 0.4% of space in landfills, a tiny amount.” ([url][/url])

    The next question about plastic bags is whether they cause other land polution problems: that is, are plastic bags making a mess of our public spaces? I don’t see this. No places I go have lots of discarded plastic grocery bags all over the place.

    But even if it were true–I imagine it is in some places–that is not so much an issue of the plastic bags but an issue of a-crying-Italian-playing-a crying-Indian ([url][/url]). In other words, if people are not putting plastic bags in garbage cans, they would be no more likely to properly dispose of paper bags or other waste products. That can be dealt with positively (by giving people an incentive not to pollute) or negatively (by fining them for polluting).

    Insofar as any economic activities cause pollution, cause problems for secondary parties or harm the atmosphere, public waters or other public spaces, it is reasonable for government to interfere. I am not convinced yet that plastic grocery bags cause any substantial externality issues. However, if they do, a ban is probably the wrong way to address those issues. Much better would be to deal with them the same way we dealth with the erstwhile problem of discarded drink cans–a small redemption value tax.

  11. Don Shor

    If you want to encourage me to stop offering my customers plastic auto liners and bags for their purchases, put a tax on them to make them more expensive. Use the tax to fund environmental projects, or road repairs, or something. The more I, as a retailer, have to pay for these items, the more likely I am to go to a greener option. I might even figure out some way to make money off it, or at least get some good PR.
    Lois Wolk said “I prefer that we begin with incentives, and if that doesn’t work, move to mandates.” I agree.

  12. Musser

    A solution in want of a problem..
    this is when you know our government is not willing to admit they have no idea on how to fix the economy…
    people are struggling to find work or are out of a job, and the govt is wasting time worrying about people’s shopping habits…

    by the way, plastic bags are very reusable.. they stretch a lot, and we use and reuse them all of the time, as do many other people…

    also, I’m sorry david, but I have2 point this out… I had arguments with you about drug use, that we ought to leave people alone when they smoke dope, which has a well-established track record of destruction, but then you want the government to curtail something as benign as someone carrying their groceries 2 their car with a piece of plastic… something wrong with this picture..

  13. David M. Greenwald

    Actually you’ve partially mistaken my argument. I’ve never argued to leave drug addicts alone, but instead of using the penal system, I would prefer to treat it as a health problem rather than a criminal problem.

    I also consider drug use primarily a behavior that impacts themselves and habits that our economic system do not factor cost and therefore Government needs to act. When drug use bleeds into issues that do impact others, then we need to treat those issues accordingly.

    Because here’s the problem, right now we are wasting a huge amount of energy and resources on billions of plastic bags, that by itself is a concern. There is the issue of landfills. And the issue of environmental problems I consider it a serious problem.

  14. Dr. Wu

    I understand Rich’s point to some extent (and Don’s).

    1. There are many other forms of plastics that get into marine ecosystems and plastic bags are only a small part of the problem. Putting a charge/tax on the bag could work but I suspect that the administrative costs of such a program would be high and I’m not convinced that the charge we levy on bottles and cans has accomplished much.

    I agree with Rich that landfill is not a huge ecological problem. Yes it would be nice to reduce, but if you had to rank environmental problems (beginning with climate change which does have the potential to change the course of our planet’s history as well as that of our own species and others) landfill would be very very low on my list.

    2. We ought to ban/reduce/tax other plastics that can harm marine life. Not all forms are equal. Bottles are not as bad because they are harder to swallow from what I understand (someone who knows more feel free to correct me). However I do not see that as a reason not to ban plastic bags. Banning plastic bags is not a panacea and there is a risk of a “warm glow effect” as we pat each other on the back when bigger problems remain, but to me banning bags seems like an efficient solution. Paper bags are a good substitute. They may cost a bit more but retailers are free to charge for the costs of paper bags.

  15. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”I’m not convinced that the charge we levy on bottles and cans has accomplished much.”[/i]

    I found this bit from Stanford, written in 2006: [quote] When AB 2020 passed in September of 1986, there was no incentive to recycle bottles and cans other than the “scrap value” recycling centers were willing to pay. California Redemption Value (CRV) introduced in 1987 allowed Californians to collect one cent for each beverage container recycled. Since then, more than 160 billion aluminum, glass, and plastic beverage containers have been recycled in the state. In 2005 alone, Californians recycled an all-time record 12.4 billion beverage containers, 61 percent of the 20.5 billion that were purchased in the state. [/quote] I don’t have any real proof that the CRV has worked as intended. However, my own anecdotal experience growing up in Davis in the 1970s is that there used to be aluminum cans strewn all over the place, especially in parks (where people had picnics or played ballgames). Now I never see that anywhere.

    In fact, a segment of the homeless (or otherwise very poor) population makes a living going around finding any bottles or cans which are redeemable and taking them to the recycling centers. (I know this only because on the one day a year I go over to the center on Anderson Road when I have collected enough bottles* to make a trip worth it, there are a number of homeless guys there each time with giant collections of bottles and cans.)

    In theory, they could do this with plastic bags if we put a 5 cent tax on each bag.** For people who still don’t want to recycle them and don’t want to pay a $1 extra for every 20 bags, they will then have a bigger incentive to bring a nylon or canvas bag to the grocery store with them. Doing that, then, would accomplish what the “banners” hope to accomplish without taking away that choice from stores or their shoppers.

    *No one in my household drinks (much) beer or soda, so we don’t use many cans with a CRV.

    **The main reason I think it’s not reasonable to charge a CRV on plastic bags is because I literally never see plastic bags strewn about. Of course what I see and don’t see is purely anecdotal, but it feels like this is a solution without a real problem.

    FWIW, like “Musser” said above, I re-use plastic bags. I have never once tossed them in the garbage after bringing home groceries. I use them either as liners for waste recepticles around my house or as dog-poop collectors every day when I take Truman out and about.

    I might also add about paper bags–which I am perfectly happy to take my groceries home in also–is that I doubt*** they are as environmentally pure as some might think. Keep in mind that de-inking has some negative side effects and re-processing paper takes up a lot of water and energy. However, if paper is simply shredded and composted or converted into cardboard (and later composted), I suspect that is better than plastic bags.

  16. JayTee

    Why can’t they just make the damn things biodegradeable to start with? If I can to go PetCo and buy biodegradeable poop bags for my dog, why can’t the same thing be done for grocery bags? Even if we had to pay an extra nickel or dime for them, that wouldn’t impact anyone’s grocery bill to a great extent. I do reuse my plastic bags … for trash can liners, storing things and mostly for dog clean-up. And please don’t suggest walking through the park carrying a shovel and a pail … not gonna do that.

  17. indigorocks

    I’m dissappointed in Wolk’s decision to vote no on this issue. She claims to care about the environment, yet she is for letting farmers dump round up and all sorts of other nasty chemicals in the so called “wildlife” refuge under the yolo causeway.
    how can you use agribusiness in a wildlife refuge and call that environmentally “friendly”
    People, our leaders have failed us, and if you want your voices to be heard, you must all call up her office and complain. she did not vote in our interest and neither did a huge list of “democrats” in our state. They voted like a bunch of industry loving whores, rather than statesmen and leaders. Sorry to use the word “whore” but it seems to be veering its ugly head again and again in the field of local, state, and federal politics..

  18. indigorocks

    ps. thanks for the article David.
    To everyone else, please call up the governor’s office and let him know that we’re not buying his so called fiscally responsible crap any more.
    to him, fiscally resonsible means going after the lowest paid earners..making sure that every state worker makes minimum wage, while he and his chronies get to keep their tax cuts.

  19. indigorocks



  20. itsme

    I wish Lois Wolk had not accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the industry; then she wouldn’t have to say that money didn’t influence her vote.

    The American ideal of rugged individualism fit our formative times, when the land stretched for thousands of miles in every direction. Except for the inconvenience of the Native Americans, it was ours for the grabbing. Now we’ve taken the continent from shore to shore and a chunk of Mexico as well. We are now over populated and our consumer driven economy demands that we make and buy more and more “stuff.” It seems to me, those that still want to live withough social obligations, should find another empty continent to befoul. Good luck on that. The rest of us will have to get realistic and live with a few restrictions.

    BTW: after I empty the contents of my cloth bag, the bag hangs on the front door knob to go out with me when I next open that door. Spare reusuable bags that accumulated from various fairs are stashed in the car. My bike has it’s own removable basket. Worst case scenario: my back pack holds a lot of “stuff.” I also keep some left over plastic bags and newspapers for lining nursery plants. Simple.

  21. Rich Rifkin

    [b]Itsnotquitetrue:[/b] [i]”I wish Lois Wolk had not accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the industry; then she wouldn’t have to say that money didn’t influence her vote.”[/i]

    I looked over all of the campaign contributions to Lois Wolk ([url][/url]) and found just one from a plastic bag manufacturer, Hilex Poly ([url][/url]). It was for $2,500, not “tens of thousands of dollars.” Reading Hilex Poly’s website makes it clear that company was opposed to the ban. However, it’s worth pointing out that Hilex Poly also operates a plastic bag recycling plant. That belies the argument that these bags are used once and buried in landfills.

    I should add that the main opponent of the plastic bag ban was the trade group called the American Chemistry Council. Wolk took no money from them. However, she did receive $1,500 from Monsanto, which is a member of the AC Council, but not a maker of plastic bags. I think it therefore makes no sense to say her Monsanto money influenced her vote on the bag ban.

    If you can cite a source for your “tens of thousands of dollars” assertion, I’d be happy to be proved wrong. For now, my suspicion is Wolk’s vote was probably not made to please her financial backers.

  22. itsme

    Lois Wolk is reported to have received $2,500 from Hilex, a plastic bag manufacturer based in S. Carolina. Here’s the source: Sac Bee 8/26/10, Susan Ferris, reporter. It was the Dem State Central Cimmitte of Ca that received $10,000 from Hilex on 8/5/10. The max donation of $3900/election was given to 4 Dem legislaters whose votes were considered critical to passing this ban.

    I was torn between loyalty to Lois’ history of supporting environmental issues and the ethics of disclosing all contributions to elected officials. The above article quotes Lois as saying she would not be influenced by the donation and that she has also received donations from the grocers’ association (which supported the ban, as I recall). She did not volunterr the amount of the grocers’ donation.

    Probably, there is not one politician who doesn’t take tainted money. This is why we have to get money out of politics. But that’s about as easy as moving heaven and earth.

  23. Mark Murray

    As one of the primary advocates in support of the bag ban (, I spent a good deal of time talking with Senator Wolk and her office on this issue. The fact is, her disagreement with us was over some of the concessions that we felt compelled to make to the retail sector, and not opposition to the concept of eliminating plastic bags. While we were disappointed that she couldn’t support the final version that was voted on last week, I do believe that Senator Wolk is supportive of phasing out plastic bags.

    For the record,I don’t believe for one minute that Senator Wolk was influenced by campaign contributions from anyone.[url][/url][url][/url][url][/url][url][/url]

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