Monday, August 23, 2010

California's Battle to Ban the Plastic Bag Heats Up in Sacramento: Author of Legislation Says the Reports of its Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Bagging Single-Use Plastic Bags in the 'Nation State' of California: News/Analysis/Commentary

AB 1998, the California legislative bill that would ban single-use plastic carrier bags in the Golden State's grocery stores, retail stores over 10,000 square-feet with pharmacies and convenience stores (in 2013), is alive and well in the California State Senate Rules Committee - and opponents of the bill led by the American Chemistry Council shouldn't pop their champagne corks in celebration just yet, says Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, the author of the legislation.

Making the rounds in her Southern California district over the weekend, which included a stop on Saturday at a University of California, Los Angeles film festival where "Plastic Bag," a short film by director Ramin Bahrani was shown, Assemblywoman Brownley said that although the Senate Appropriations Committee didn't vote out the bill by its required August 13 deadline, and as a result sent the legislation over to the Senate Rules Committee, it did so for a specific reason. California legislative rules require that if the Appropriations Committee fails to pass a bill by its deadline, August 13 in the case of AB 1999, such bills can't be amended over the following 10 days, which is when the legislative session ends for the year, on August 31.

However, by giving control of the bill to the Senate Rules Committee, which is exempt from the no amendments rule, AB 1998 is not subject to the restriction and can be debated and amended between now and August 31. As such, AB 1998 has sort of a protected status, according to Brownley.

This is important because Brownley and other supports of the single-use plastic carrier bag ban legislation believe that with some minor amendments the bill can pass in the full State Senate. It must be voted on before the end of business on August 31, when the legislative session ends, however.

In other words, the bill's author says it's still alive, despite arguments to the contrary by those against the bag ban legislation.

Brownley says she had numerous meetings last week with Senate leaders to discuss amendments to AB 1998 that deal with the issues opponents are most concerned with, such as whether grocers will be able to keep the money they charge for paper bags, or whether any amount they charge above their costs will be directed to state recycling programs rather than being kept by the retailers as profits.

AB 1998 allows grocers to sell paper grocery bags to customers for a minimum of five cents each. Large paper carrier bags generally cost grocers slightly more than five cents each.

The American Chemistry Council, which among other activities is a trade group for single-use plastic carrier bag manufacturers, and a coalition of opponents of the bag ban bill, which are going by the name Stop the Bag Police, argue that "the fees collected from paper bags would be pocketed by grocers and would not fund the infrastructure required by the bill. The passage of AB 1998 would result in the elimination of hundreds of California-based plastic bag manufacturing jobs and would dismantle a young but growing plastic bag recycling infrastructure," the coalition said in a statement recently.

For those who have a fundamental understanding of California grocery retailing, the notion that grocers are going to use sales of the paper grocery bags as a profit center is hard to fathom. Most likely, grocers will sell the bags for cost or a few cents over their cost. We predict it will be no more than 10 -to- fifteen cents a bag. Many grocers might even start out selling the bags for the five cents each, the minimum charge required in AB 1998.

Additionally, we suspect nearly all grocery chains and independents will sell the paper bags for the same price, or close to it, once it's established in the market. Safeway, Kroger and Walmart will essentially set the price as the biggest retailers and market share leaders in California.

We also suspect paper bag manufactures will raise the cost of the bags to California grocers if the legislation is passed because they will see a guaranteed market in California. Grocers will likely pass any cost increases on to shoppers. However, the last thing California grocers want to do is be accused of profiting from the sale of paper bags. The public relations damage from it would far exceed any minimal profit they might make.

The purpose of the minimum five cent charge for the paper bags is to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags. In fact, many supporters argue that five cents isn't enough. Rather, they say that a fifteen cent or more per-bag charge is probably required in order to economically motivate shoppers to bring their own bags to the store.

California grocers are already required by law to sell reusable grocery bags in their stores. AB 1998 maintains that requirement.

Grocers will still be allowed to use the types of plastic bags they currently use in-store for meat, produce, bulk foods and other items under a food safety provision in the bill.

So here's the scoop, according to Brownley: This week the Senate Rules Committee should propose some minor amendments to AB 1998 dealing with the key issues noted above. She hopes those changes will gain the support of those holdouts in the Senate. Those amendments can be changed and fine tuned until August 31, when the bill must be voted on. If supporters don't think they have enough votes, they can pull the bill from a full Senate vote and bring it back next year, although if they do that it will have to go before all of the State Assembly and Senate committees all over again. AB 1998 passed the full California State Assembly in June.

Meanwhile, both supporters and opponents are lobbying Senators hard and fast. Both groups are also using free and paid media and social networking sites to get their respective messages out to California voters, who they then hope will call and e-mail their State Senators telling the legislators how they want them to vote on the single-use plastic bag ban bill.

Last week the American Chemistry Council went big in lobbying the State Senate against AB 1998. The group also launched a video of its own, titled "Trouble."

The video is in part a response to a short film, "The Majestic Bag," narrated by actor Jeremy Irons, and put out by Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica, California-based environmental group which is one of the major supporters of AB 1998, as we reported in this piece last week - August 16, 2010 Supporters of California's First-in-the-Nation Single-Use Plastic Bag Ban Going Humorous to Win on the Eve of State Senate Vote.

The California Grocers Association (CGA) supports AB 1998, as we've previously reported. The CGA, which was founded in 1898, is a non-profit, statewide trade association representing approximately 500 retail members operating over 6,000 food and grocery stores in California and Nevada, and approximately 300 grocery supplier companies. Retail membership includes chain and independent supermarkets, convenience stores and mass merchandisers. Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is a CGA member, as is Safeway Stores, Inc. and most of the state's major chains and independents.

If passed, AB 1998 would prevent California cities and counties, accept San Francisco which already bans single-use plastic carrier bags, from enacting local laws regarding the plastic shopping bags. This provision is the main reason the CGA and its member-grocers is supporting the legislation. It wants a single-statewide law on plastic carrier bag use rather than the patchwork of local laws that currently exists.

It's estimated that about 19 million single-use plastic carrier bags are distributed in California retail stores each year. Just 5% of those bags are recycled, according to the state. If AB 1998 passes in the Senate, the Governor says he will sign it. If that happens, California will be the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic carrier bags at grocery and related retail stores.

Numerous environmental groups and coalitions also support AB 1998. These include Heal the Bay, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Californians Against Waste, Surf Santa Monica, and numerous others.
The California Legislature is going on being 60 days late without having passed a state budget. But starting today, along with more budget talks, the battle of the plastic bag will be front and center at the State Capital in Sacramento. Will the plastic bag ban pass? Or will its opponents succeed in bagging the bag ban? Stay tuned.

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[Readers: Fresh & Easy Buzz has been reporting on, writing about, and offering analysis and opinion on the single-use plastic carrier bag, reusable bag, and related topics and issues since early 2008. Click here, here, here and here to read a selection of those posts.]

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