The Fight Over Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are still legal in California. San Francisco and a handful of other California cities already ban the bags, but California lawmakers rejected a bill brought by Democrats that would have prevented retail stores across the state from using plastic “single-use carryout bags” and required them to sell recycled-content paper bags for what they actually cost to make.


Supporters of the bill say that Californians use more than 19 billion single-use plastic bags a year—that would be more than 500 per person—and that, on the top of the environmental damage the bags do as litter, it costs the state more than $25 million to collect them and put them in landfills. Opponents of the bill argued that the bill would cost California 1,000 manufacturing jobs making the bags, portraying the bill as a hidden tax on grocery shopping that infringes our right to choose what kind of bags we want to carry our groceries in.

Opposition to the bill was largely backed by the Virginia-based American Chemistry Council, which reportedly spent millions lobbying the legislature to oppose the bill and running ads against it. The American Chemistry Council, which represents bag manufacturing interests like Dow and ExxonMobil, recently helped defeat an effort in Seattle to impose a 20-cent surcharge on single-use bags. It even funded a dubious study suggesting that reusable grocery bags could harbor bacteria that might make people with compromised immune systems sick

The truth is that disposable bags—whether paper or plastic—are a pretty poor way to get our groceries home. I doubt many people see it as question of personal freedom. Fellow Big Think blogger Maria Popova reports that eBay is introducing a reusable biodegradable shipping box. We will have to find a similar solution for carrying our groceries, because in the long run it makes no sense to employ people to manufacture things that waste resources and harm the environment—even if it cuts into the short-term profit margins of petroleum companies.

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