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California Bans Single-Use Plastic Bags: Environmental Concerns v. Business Cocerns

Published onNov 07, 2014
California Bans Single-Use Plastic Bags: Environmental Concerns v. Business Cocerns

In late September of this year, Governor Jerry Brown of California made history by making California the first state to ban single-use plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores.  Beginning in July 2015, large grocery stores and pharmacies will be banned from providing shoppers with plastic bags at checkout, and other stores will follow a year later.  This statewide ban follows the lead of the Los Angeles ban signed only last year, and having substantially similar terms, and the Santa Monica and San Francisco bans, among many other U.S. cities already in effect.  Like these other bans, the bill require the stores to charge at least 10 cents for each paper bag or other reusable bag it gives to customers to encourage the use of reusable bags.

The ban’s main focus is on the environmental damage that single-use plastic bags can cause, and Environmental groups are already hailing it as a victory:  “I think this is the beginning of the end of plastic grocery bags and 10 years from now we’re going to forget they ever existed,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians against Waste.  Most states include laws giving the state the power to enact legislation for the purpose of environmental protection, but the legal question is whether this interest is substantial enough.

Not everyone is happy about the new bill.  Soon after the bill was passed, opponents began to collect signatures for a referendum.  Some of these proponents claim that market research shows that most of the public doesn’t want to have to pay for paper bags.  Bag manufacturers of plastic bags are also concerned with the effects of the ban and claim that thousands of California manufacturing jobs would be in jeopardy.  Others question whether the bill has any environmental benefit at all, quoting for example that cotton bags (because of the amount of energy that is used to produce them) must be used 131 times before their contribution to global climate change becomes lower than that of a plastic bag used just once.  Likewise, the non-woven polypropylene bags that can be found at many grocery stores, but be used 11 times before their impact is less than disposable bags.

Still others fight against these arguments by pointing to a U.K. environmental study that showed certain types of reusable bags required only 4 uses before they beat plastic bags and paper bags required only 3 uses.  They also point to the fact that discontinuing the use of single-use plastic bags could dramatically reduce garbage, as bags are “the major source of human-related debris on the seabed.”

California Highway

California’s new law has very interesting implications for the future of environmentalism, but also interestingly has not been the subject of any legal challenge to date.  If the opponents of the bill are unable to repeal the law through obtaining the number of signatures required, perhaps then we will see a legal challenge.  However, the strong environmentalism of the state of California will mean that such a challenge will be unlikely to succeed.

* John Hodnette is a third year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a minor in Philosophy, from Auburn University. Upon graduation, he intends to practice in the Chicago area.

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