Friday, February 23, 2024

California’s war on plastic bag use seems to have backfired. Lawmakers are trying again

A decade ago, California became the first state in the country to ban single-use plastic bags, paving the way for a wave of anti-plastic laws from coast to coast.

But in the years since California apparently ditched the plastic grocery bag habit, materials recovery facilities and environmental activists have noticed a peculiar trend: The weight of plastic bag waste was increasing at unprecedented levels.

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According to a report from consumer advocacy group CALPIRG, 157,385 tons of plastic bag waste were thrown away in California the year the law was passed. However, by 2022, the tonnage of discarded plastic bags had skyrocketed to 231,072, an increase of 47%. Even taking into account the increase in population, this figure increased from 4.08 tonnes per 1,000 inhabitants in 2014 to 5.89 tonnes per 1,000 inhabitants in 2022.

It turns out the problem lay in a section of the law that allowed grocery stores and large retailers to provide their customers with thicker, heavier plastic bags for the price of a penny.

“It was a conscious decision to create a path for a type of reusable bag that barely existed,” said Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, an environmental organization. “It was just emerging on the market, but it happened to be made by a few companies in California…whose manufacturers claimed they could certify that it was reusable.”

He said the bags were made of 20% recyclable material and the manufacturers said they could be recycled at the end of their “useful life”. …So we said, okay, fine. We will enshrine these specific criteria in law.

“This experiment failed,” Murray said.

“It was a gaping hole,” said Mark Gold, director of Water Scarcity Solutions, Environmental Health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who worked on the original legislation — SB 270 — while at the organization Heal the Bay.

These “reusable” bags are made from a material called HDPE, which is thicker and heavier than the LDPE plastic bags of old. And while both materials can be recycled — and are often recycled in commercial and agricultural environments — they are generally not recycled in residential and consumer environments, Murray said.

“Basically what happened was the plastic bag companies invented these thicker plastic bags that technically meet this definition of reusable but are clearly not reused and don’t look like bags reusable and that simply circumvents the intent of the law,” said Jenn Engstrom of State CALPIRG. director.

Now, California lawmakers hope to correct that mistake by passing a law that closes the loophole and bans thick plastic bags offered at checkout counters.

“The idea is to go back and redefine reusable bags as a way to get rid of all these inconveniences that we now see very commonly in grocery stores,” Engstrom said.

Thick plastic bags are “not what consumers demanded when they overwhelmingly voted in favor of California’s bag ban at the ballot box when the policy was challenged,” Sen. Ben Allen (D-D.) said recently. of Santa Monica) to reporters in reference to Proposition 67, a 2016 ballot measure that would have overturned the 2014 law.

“Californians want less plastic, not more.”

The bill was co-authored by Allen, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) and Sen. Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas).

Research has shown that the plastic problem is getting worse.

Plastic has been found everywhere scientists have looked: from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest alpine peaks. Petroleum-based plastics are not biodegradable. Over time, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces – called microplastics, microfibers and nanoplastics – and have been found in household dust, drinking water, human tissues and blood.

These small pieces of plastic also contain chemicals and heavy metals known to cause illness.

“If you’ve been paying attention, reading the news and looking around, you realize that we are literally choking our planet with plastic waste,” Blakespear said at the press conference. She noted that 5 trillion bags are used globally each year and the average usage time per bag is 12 minutes.

Part of the problem is the promises product manufacturers make about recycling and the harsh realities of collecting and reusing plastic. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that only 8.7% of all plastics were actually recycled.

In 2022, California Atty. General Rob Bonta has opened an investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their alleged role in creating and exacerbating a global plastic waste pollution crisis, and for misleading the public into believe that recycling could solve the problem of plastic waste.

Allen and Engstrom said states like New Jersey and New York followed California’s decision to ban plastic bags, but learned from California’s mistake and developed legislation to fill that gap. gap.

“There is this virtuous cycle of dialogue between states that want to do the right thing, where we build on each other’s work and almost challenge each other” to write effective, comprehensive laws, Allen said.

He also said he expects the path to be fairly clear for this bill as it moves through the Assembly and Senate, largely because it is supported by California Grocers Assn.

Daniel Conway, the association’s vice president for government relations, called the original legislation banning plastic bags “revolutionary,” but “at the same time, I think like most good laws, it needs to be thrown out.” a glance and adapt to the changes in the world.” in which we live.

Gold wasn’t surprised that the first law didn’t work.

“This is what happens when you try to tackle plastic, one item at a time,” he said. “It’s just not effective in curbing the plastic problem.”

He said a much better approach was SB 54, a bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2022.

The sweeping law aims to phase out single-use plastics through a policy concept known as extended producer responsibility, which shifts responsibility for waste from consumers and cities to companies making products with an environmental impact.

The law also grants plastics companies extensive oversight and authority in terms of program management, execution and reporting, through a producer responsibility organization, which will be comprised of industry representatives.

The legislation requires that by January 1, 2028, at least 30% of plastic items sold, distributed or imported into the state be recyclable. By 2032, this figure will rise to 65%. It also calls for a 25% reduction in single-use plastic waste by 2032 and gives CalRecycle the power to increase that percentage if the amount of plastic in the economy and the waste stream increases.

In the case of expanded polystyrene, this figure must reach 25% by 2025. If this figure is not reached, foamed plastic, ubiquitous and difficult to recycle, will be banned.

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