California lawmakers passed a key hurdle Thursday in imposing the nation's first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags.
The state Assembly approved SB270 on a 44-29 vote after rejecting the bill earlier in the week. It now heads to the Senate, where it must be approved by Sunday and has support from top Democrats who rejected a similar effort last year. A vote is expected Friday.
Over 100 local jurisdictions in California already have adopted similar bans, including Arcata, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors held off on moving forward with a ban in unincorporated areas to see what would happen on the state level.
"Many single-use bags are made from materials that do not readily decompose, and they have severe environmental impacts," a county release to the Times-Standard on Thursday states. "When these bags litter the environment, storm drains and beaches, then taxpayers end up bearing the brunt of the cleanup costs. We hope the bill takes into account these impacts, and we are awaiting to see the bill in its final form."
The new version won support from grocers by allowing them to charge 10 cents for paper and reusable bags, and from some manufacturers by including $2 million in loans to help shift production to reusable bags.
The bill by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, would prohibit single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and large pharmacies in 2015 and at convenience stores in 2016. It has sparked one of the most contentious debates in the last weeks of the legislative session, with aggressive lobbying by environmentalists and bag manufacturers.
For years, a statewide plastic bag ban has been an elusive goal for lawmakers trying to reduce the buildup of plastic waste in oceans and waterways that costs millions of dollars to cleanup.
"We live in a throw-away society," said Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward. "What this bill does is to make an effort to do one little thing: Get people to use reusable bags."
Opposition to the bill has focused on the 10-cent fee, which legislators of both parties have called unfair to consumers.
"We're adding significantly to their costs," said Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills. "This is a tax on our consumers."
First District Humboldt County Supervisor and board Chairman Rex Bohn and 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell had voiced similar concerns.
Policy Coordinator Jud Ellinwood of Zero Waste Humboldt, a local nonprofit environmental organization based in Arcata, said those supervisors are looking at it the wrong way.
"They completely forget to mention what I think is driving the county of board of supervisors' support of the bill, which is the actual dollar savings they can use to allocate for priority uses," he said.
Ellinwood said his organization estimated that should the county pass an ordinance for the unincorporated areas similar to that of SB270, it would generate an annual savings of $71,800 to $214,600. These figures were generated using San Jose's per capita savings range of about $1 to $3 and applying them to Humboldt County, according to Ellinwood.
The American Forest & Paper Association, representing paper bag makers, says SB270 unfairly treats their commonly recycled products like plastic, while holding reusable plastic bags to a lower standard for recyclable content.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a coalition of plastic bag manufacturers, released a statement calling on the Senate to reject a bill that "threatens 2,000 California manufacturing jobs, hurts consumers and puts billions of dollars into the pockets of grocers — without providing any benefit to the environment."
An influential grocer's union, which had withdrawn its support earlier, now backs the bill.
Ellinwood said SB270 is an evolution of the state's three previously proposed bag ban bills, but there was a reason why none of them have been able to make it through the Legislature.
"It's wise not to underestimate the power and influence of the plastics industry," he said. "They have been throwing millions of dollars into this campaign over the last several months, felt free to use misinformation and made absolutely false statements in their efforts to prevent the bill from moving forward. This is one of those things you don't make prognostications for — with that kind of history — and wait to see how it shakes out."