California’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown isn’t over. There was even a partial reversal of the state’s reopening on the first day of July when Gov. Gavin Newsom hit the “dimmer switch.” But not much can come between California and its plastic bag ban. After a two-month vacation, it’s back.
In late April, Newsom issued an order that suspended the prohibition on the single-use plastic bags that for decades had become part of an unspoken agreement between customers and retailers. (We’ve used the word “ban” to describe California’s plastic-bag policy, but, as has been smartly pointed out elsewhere, it’s actually an “upgrade” in which consumers who want bags are forced to buy thicker, heavier bags unless they bring their own reusables.) The temporary directive was based on concerns that the reusable bags used by many could harbor the virus and spread it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since announced “transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented.” So as of June 22, after Newsom’s order had run its 60-day course, the bag ban was back. Customers can go back into stores with their reusable bags and stores will again charge for the heavier bags they had been selling.
Environmentalists celebrated. Independent thinkers winced.
So did the many consumers who had another chance to reuse the “single-use” bags for lunch and snack containers, to clean up pet waste, line garbage cans, and in some cases sack up belongings for overnight stay. For all their versatility, they should be treasured by the reuse-reduce-recycle crowd.
It’s easy to thunder against thin-gauge plastic bags. The media and political operatives have demonized them with stories of animals, especially aquatic wildlife, being injured by their encounters with bags; reports of a great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean swirling with plastic; and repeated grousing about plastic litter.
All are legitimate concerns. But they are only part of the story. So let’s line up a few lesser-known but still-important facts:
- The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany found that about 90% of ocean plastic arrives from “the top 10 rivers with the highest loads” of plastic debris. Not one of the rivers is in California. Or the U.S., for that matter.
- Only about 1% percent of all ocean plastic is generated in the U.S. This means California is responsible for roughly zero ocean plastic.
- Plastic grocery bags made up only 73% of all the litter picked up on 2016’s California Coastal Cleanup Day.
- In 2017, with the bag ban in effect, that portion dropped to – 5%.
- Plastic bags are only 6% of all visible litter.
Before the ban came down, littering had long been banned in California. And the penalties can be stiff. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a first conviction in California can result in a fine between $100 and $1,000, “and at least eight hours of litter cleanup.” Fines for second convictions are between $500 and $1,000, and offenders have to put in “at least 16 hours of litter cleanup.” Subsequent convictions can bring fines “between $750 and $1,000,” and require “at least 24 hours of litter cleanup.”
Punishment for littering in Los Angeles is even more severe.
So why not enforce the law rather than banning a useful product? Cite the one in five drivers who litter while driving. Be better than San Francisco, where there’s “lots of litter, but no enforcement” at the city’s Dolores Park. Policymakers should be as zealous about preventing litter as they are about snuffing out smoking on beaches, and cracking down on those who toss used pandemic masks and gloves on streets, sidewalks and other public areas.
This being California, though, bans are a better fit for the political environment.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.