Plastic grocery bags, if not recycled, end up flying around the neighborhood. They are so light that they are easily carried by the slightest breeze into power lines and the branches of trees. They take years to degrade and create an ugly and artificial blight when improperly disposed of. Paper bags are not quite the same problem, but they also take time to degrade and are equally guilty of causing an eyesore.
Do You Want a Bag With That?
Plastic and paper grocery bags have become the bane of environmentalists, for good reason. The plastic bags take years to degrade. Paper has its own problems.
An Open Letter to my Readers
Bear with me. I have to set this up a bit so it makes sense.
There's a saying "as goes California so goes the nation." This is only partially true. Smoking bans began here, California was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, mothers against drunk drivers have a real foot-hold here (and our laws reflect that) and environmental issues are often the meat and potatoes for reporters in the golden state.
What you don't hear is that "as goes Santa Monica so goes California," but this is also about as true as the assertion above.
Santa Monica was one of the first cities in California to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, one of the first to allow medical marijuana dispensaries and one of the first cities to purify waste water before it goes into the ocean. This long before the rest of the state adopted these measures.
Santa Monica is a true city too, not a neighborhood. It has long been known as a bastion of progressive laws and thinking. I've even heard it called "The Soviet Socialist’s Republic of Santa Monica." But I have to disagree with this characterization since I seriously doubt that soviet Russia had a Nordstrom's, Macy's, Apple Store, and all the other trappings of a economically diverse and business friendly environment.
Frankly speaking, Santa Monica city council does a pretty good job of balancing environmental concerns with a pro-business attitude. If you think about it for a moment that is quite an accomplishment.
All that said, Santa Monica has just passed a law banning plastic (and non-recycled paper) bags.
They're Banning What?
After three years of work by environmental groups, advocates, and individuals the Santa Monica City Council finally voted in favor of prohibiting the single-use paper or plastic bag.
The ordinance (2348) went into effect on September 1, 2011. As of now there are eighteen hundred plus (1,870) establishments within the city that are directly affected. This includes super-markets, mini-marts, and liquor stores.
In crafting the ordinance Santa Monica estimates that in any given year these stores distribute, free of charge, twenty-six million (26,000,000) non-recycled paper or plastic "single use" bags. The vast majority of the "throw-away" bags are plastic.
"Santa Monica taxpayers are paying to clean up those bags that are being given away free by these stores." -- Dean Kubani (Director: Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment)
Of the eighteen hundred seventy (1,870) stores only ninety-five (95) of them will be required to charge the customer 10¢ per recycled paper bag. The other seventeen hundred seventy-five (1,775) will be exempted. These exempted stores will be able to give the recycled-paper bags away free, but are banned from using plastic. This 10¢ charge is the minimum by the way; stores could, if they wanted to, charge more.
The reason these stores have been targeted is because the City of Santa Monica has determined that the majority of the bags ending up in the street come from these ninety-five (95) stores.
The fee is "intended to discourage the customer from using plastic bags" and no part of that fee will go to the city or state; the store itself will retain any profits from the sale of these bags. This was done to skirt a recently passed Proposition 26. Proposition 26, passed November 2010, requires voter approval for any state level fees or charges by a clear 2/3 majority of the state Congress.
The city itself will have to absorb the $60,000 initial cost to implement the program. This for staff and supplies. After that cost to the city will rise to $115,000 for 2011~2012 and then "stabilize" to $75,000 per year thereafter.
Plastic Bag Facts
An essay on the problems posed by plastic grocery bags.
The Effects of Plastic Bags on the Environment
A essay hosted by HealthGuidance on the effects of plastic bags on the environment and possible solutions.
Transcript of NPR segment on plastic bags.
An interview with Michael Bolinder, whose group has been monitoring plastic bag trash in the Anacostia River both before and after a plastic bag ban.
Excluded from the Ban
The new ordinance will exclude four hundred two (402) restaurants, one hundred forty-four (144) food trucks, and an indeterminate number of farmer's markets. Farmer's market numbers fluctuate throughout the year.
Produce and Mushroom Bags
The ordinance will also exempt produce bags, the smaller type dispensed near the fruits and vegetables, as well as small paper bags for mushrooms and take-out bags typically used to package hot take-out food. So Santa Monicans don't have to worry about what to put their produce in....or mushrooms for that matter.
How Much Does it Cost to Make a Bag?
At ten cents a bag, and only recycled paper bags at that, I thought it a good idea to find out just what these cost. Here's the breakdown.
A Single Use Plastic Grocery Bag, cost per bag is 2/10ths of a cent or five bags for one cent. This does not include labor, capital and overhead which adds another 10% making the bag 2.2/10ths of a cent. If you want something printed on the bag then the cost is about four bags a cent or 3.4/10ths a cent.
Let me put it this way, they are cheap.
A Single Use Recycled Paper Bag, cost per bag is about nine (9¢) cents per bag. Substantially more than plastic. This goes a long way toward explaining why stores jumped on the "plastic bag" bandwagon so many years ago; it cost less.
However, plastic bags are tough to recycle for two reasons. First, they tend to gum up the recycling machinery and many cities won't take them for that reason. Second, it's actually cheaper to make a plastic bag from "virgin" plastic than to make one from recycled plastic.
Paper, on the other hand, is highly recyclable with about 78% percent of paper waste making it to recycling facilities. Recycled paper is cheaper to produce too with costs substantially less than from virgin wood.
Is it Verifiable?
Santa Monica merchants will be required to report to the Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment the number of recycled paper bags sold and the amount of money taken in on those sales.
Potential Problems and Other Issues
Certainly, there will be some group of merchants and individuals who object to this proposed ordinance. After all:
- Only certain stores are required to charge for bags
- The required minimum 10¢ charge could be an issue
- Merchants in the small group will be required to track how many bags they've sold
- Enforcement will be an issue; there really isn't any
- The sixty thousand dollar allocation for enforcement could be an issue
- Who will be tasked with enforcement has yet to be determined
If this works as planned Santa Monica could become a "model city" for this sort of pollution enforcement. What happens here could spread to the rest of California and, in turn, the rest of the country.
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Is Santa Monica on the right Track?
Is banning plastic bags the right thing to do?
Yes, we need to start somewhere
Is this a good idea? I have no clue.
One way or the other there are going to be costs and there's no doubt in my mind that the cost charged for the bag will not offset the cost to the merchant to buy it. Then there's the $75,000 yearly cost to the city for monitoring the program. Nothing ever stays within a projected budget.
It wasn't even sixty years ago that you took your own bag shopping. The shopping bag was a gimmick to lure customers to the store; a gimmick that worked too, until everyone else started doing it too.
Before that you brought your own bag, whatever style of bag that was. Maybe you even brought your own box.
Will the rest of California follow this ban?
Will the United States follow California?
Can we citizens really start bringing our own bags or boxes again?