Grocery shopping in California isn’t what it used to be. Traditionally, customers carried their items away in paper bags provided by the store through an unspoken, but well-established and always understood, contract between seller and buyer.
But then government got involved and turned a simple transaction into an irksome task. Now some shoppers have to make an instant decision at the checkout register with impatient eyes glaring at them from behind.
Do they buy a bag, one that had always been part of the exchange before?
Or are they up to schlepping their pile of groceries out to their cars? This will undoubtedly require them to juggle frozen chicken tenders, organic kale, and a bottle of Cabernet (this is California, after all), while performing what looks like a clumsy version of some tribal dance to avoid dropping everything as they hunt for their keys.
According to Californians Against Waste, 151 cities and counties have adopted 122 ordinances that force shoppers to go through this bumbling ballet. These laws prohibit stores from providing plastic bags to patrons. Customers can either buy a paper bag for a dime, bring their own reusable bag, or try to get the groceries into their car, then into the house by hand without breaking the eggs, flattening the bread, or watching the plastic Jif jar roll into the gutter or under the hybrid in the next space.
Unable to overcome its urge to prohibit, the state joined the plastic bag police in 2014 when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 270. The law makes it illegal for grocers, convenience stores, and drug stores to “provide a single-use carryout bag to a customer at the point of sale.” It also makes it illegal for stores to provide paper bags unless they charge customers at least 10 cents for each.
Opponents collected enough signatures to put the issue of whether to overturn SB 270 on the ballot. Californians will now have a chance to make their voices heard on Nov. 8, when they cast a ballot on Proposition 67. A “no” vote means the law will be thrown out. A “yes” vote will ratify it.
Plastic bag ban supporters argue that the prohibition is a necessary environmental safeguard. They say it will reduce litter and protect wildlife, particularly ocean animals, since the bags can entangle fish, sea otters, seals, and sea turtles. Even birds can get snared, they say. There is also, they say, a problem with animals mistaking the bags for food and eating them, which eventually results in their starvation as the plastic blocks their digestive systems.
But maybe the problem isn’t the existence and proper use of plastics bags, but the lawbreaking actions of those who don’t responsibly dispose of them. How about enforcing litter laws instead of making everyone responsible for the behavior of a few by declaring a perfectly useful article to be contraband?
Actually, there might not be a problem at all. Plastic bags make up only 0.6 percent of all visible litter. Greenpeace has acknowledged that it’s “very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite.”
Because it would create a windfall for them, grocers are also in favor of the law. The National Center for Policy Analysis reports that a consulting firm found that retailers selling paper bags for a dime each and reusable bags at significantly more could generate more than $400 million in sales each year from sack sales.
But grocers won’t be happy if voters approve Proposition 67, while also approving a competing measure – Proposition 65. Prop. 65 would direct money from paper bag sales to a state environmental fund. Should it pass, the grocers won’t be keeping those dimes. The NCPA says grocers would, in fact, actually incur costs due to “reporting requirements” as the government will want to know how many bags are sold. There will also be higher costs for “staff training, and customer education on reusable bags and recycling efforts.”
The battle lines have been drawn in this ballot fight. However, the grocers and their customers would have been better off had they fought against all bag bans from the beginning, and insisted on preserving the traditional arrangement.
Kerry Jackson is a Fellow at the California Center for Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.