No more ‘paper or plastic?’ California must close a loophole at grocery stores


UPDATED JUNE 03, 2024 9:38 AM

Californians have long supported the idea of eliminating single-use plastic bags from grocery store checkouts. In fact, nearly a decade ago, both the state’s voters and the California Legislature approved a proposition to do just that.

Unfortunately, a loophole in the law allowed thicker plastic bags to become the standard at grocery store checkout stands because they were theoretically reusable and recyclable.

It turns out, however, that almost nobody is reusing the thicker plastic bags for their groceries and no place in California is recycling them, a 2023 Los Angeles Times story revealed.

That’s why the two of us have introduced mirror bills in the California Legislature. No more “Paper or Plastic?” If you forget your reusable bag, you will have only a paper option.

Senate Bill 1053 has passed the Senate 31-7, and Assembly Bill 2236 passed out of its house 51-7. Now the bills will move to the other house for a vote later this summer, and hopefully then to the governor’s desk for his signature.

The last 10 years of data around plastic bag waste paint a bleak picture. Since the thinner plastic bags were prohibited, the thicker plastic bag distribution has resulted in a 46% increase in plastic bag waste discarded in California, according to a report by CALPIRG.

Some 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions alone. That’s the equivalent of five grocery bags on every foot of coastline around the world.

Our culture of plastic consumption has resulted in a tenfold increase in plastic pollution since 1980, and it is responsible for the death of at least 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million seabirds each year.

The EPA has found nearly every type of plastic in our oceans and waterways, but polyethylene is one of the most prevalent, which can be attributed to widespread use of single-use plastic bags.

However, not surprisingly, the bills are strongly opposed by the plastics industry, which has been running ads against the legislation. The oil industry is tied closely to the plastics industry because it takes oil to make plastic, and as consumers move away from fossil fuel, the oil industry is looking for other profit sources. Plastic consumption is unfortunately going up every year, and is expected to continue growing. Plastic creation will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050.

Opponents of our bill argue the elimination of thicker plastic film bags will increase plastic use through consumer purchase of non-woven polypropylene bags that will be discarded after one use. But don’t be fooled. There is no obligation for companies to search for another end-run around our state’s plastic bag ban.

As environmental stewards, we recognize it’s currently nearly impossible to live a plastic-free life. We are heartened by the coming requirements of Senate Bill 54 by Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Product Responsibility Act. It established the most ambitious extended producer responsibility program in history. This law means the responsibility for reducing and eventually eliminating plastic waste is borne by the manufacturers of plastic products, instead of consumers.

This new law requires companies that produce or package their products in plastic to ensure that by 2032, all single-use packaging and plastic food service ware sold in the state is recyclable or compostable. While SB 54 is a big step in the right direction, our legislation is needed right now.

When our laws go into effect, shoppers can either bring or purchase their own reusable bags, or purchase a 10-cent paper bag that includes at least 50% recycled content. Several grocery store chains, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, already offer only paper bags to shoppers.

Our legislation has a long list of environmental supporters — more than 100 —including the California Grocers Association, which represents the state’s grocery stores.

It’s time to get this right — and completely eliminate plastic film bags at grocery stores.

Catherine Blakespear, a Democrat, is a state senator from Encinitas. Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat, is a state assembly member from Orinda

This story was originally published by the Sacramento Bee on June 3, 2024, 5:00 AM.