California Perspective Guest Contributors West

Banning the Bag: The Sequel Coming to a Store Near You

Shelby Report of the West Grocery News

Every summer you can bet on two things coming from California: A blockbuster story hitting the movie screen and blockbuster legislation.

Last year’s story was Assembly Bill 1998, a statewide bill to ban plastic bags and require a charge for paper bags. Grocers made the difficult decision to support the bill because we knew that if the state did not intervene, local governments would act (See my October 2010 column).

CGA believed that regulatory consistency across California was important for grocers and consumers, not a patchwork of local ordinances. Understandably, the plastics industry vigorously opposed the bill. When the final scene played in the last minutes of the legislative session, the bill failed. Passage of Proposition 26, which limits the ability of the state to raise fees, made a remake unlikely for 2011.

The sequel to last year’s blockbuster is the predictable story that since the failure of AB 1998, 2.5 million Californians are now living with bag regulations. Another 2 million to 3 million Californians will likely be regulated by the end of 2011. This year’s starring role goes to an ensemble of local governments who passed bans on plastic bags and require a charge for paper bags.

First to pass an ordinance was unincorporated Los Angeles County, home to 1 million people. The City of Long Beach also passed an ordinance that adds another half million to the count. The City of San Jose passed a similar ordinance but applied the ban to all retailers, not just food retailers. As the 10th-largest city in the United States, San Jose impacted more than 5,000 businesses and added another 1 million to the population count.

The story line is compelling when you consider that every local government in California that has passed, or is discussing a bag ban, is following the AB 1998 theme—a ban on plastic bags and a required charge for paper bags.

Specifically, the use of plastic bags is banned at checkout, and paper bags may be purchased for a mandated charge of anywhere from 10 to 25 cents, which is retained by the retailer. In all cases, plastic produce bags are allowed to protect purchases from damage or contamination. The overall effect is to encourage consumers to use reusable carryout bags.

CGA knew it had to craft a narrative that would convince local governments to set aside their differences. The end result of much behind-the-scenes dialogue and encouragement is a movement towards regionalism on bag regulation. Local governments in California realized that regional consistency is good for them as well as for consumers and businesses.

For example, Los Angeles County performed a countywide Environmental Impact Report when it prepared its ordinance. Other cities, like Long Beach and Calabasas, incorporated that report into their versions of the ordinance and saved money. Incorporating the existing report also created an incentive to draft an ordinance that followed the parameters of the county’s version.

Santa Clara County elected officials, home of the City of San Jose, approved a regional model ordinance for cities to follow, which San Jose did. Alameda County is in the process of passing a bag ordinance through a regional authority. The result will be one ordinance applying to all 15 jurisdictions and covering 1.5 million people. Dozens of other California cities and counties are poised to model the regional effort in the remainder of 2011.

Whether you like this year’s bag regulation fare or not, you cannot deny the ascendancy of bag regulation in California and throughout the West. So, get yourself a large popcorn. This sequel is likely to become a trilogy for next year.

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