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Climate

Plastic Bag Ban Made Pollution Worse So Enviros Double Down With New Law


California’s environmental-friendly lawmakers were quite proud of themselves when, in 2014, they passed a first-in-the-nation ban on stores from handing out so-called single-use plastic bags as a means to turn back the tide, so to speak, on an ocean-pollution “crisis” that was threatening marine wildlife and supposedly turning our beaches into waste dumps.

The legislation got entangled in the usual interest-group politics involving bag makers, unions, grocers, and recyclers. [emphasis, links added]

The California Grocers Association even backed the law, arguing it promoted consistency rather than forced stores to deal with a hodgepodge of local bans.

Of course, grocers suddenly got to charge 10 cents a pop for something they gave away for free. But now grocers could only sell bulky paper bags — or those thicker, supposedly reusable (and partially recycled) plastic bags.

Anyway, the plastic bag manufacturers gathered enough signatures to place the law (Senate Bill 270) on the statewide ballot in 2016 as a referendum.

That delayed its implementation by two years, but the industry lost the vote — and in the ensuing eight years (sans a 60-day reprieve during COVID-19), Californians have had to a) buy heavier plastic bags; b) bring their own bags; or c) just let their groceries roll around in the back of the SUV.

Shoppers often complained about the annoyance of schlepping old bags and the slowed checkout process, as cashiers have to question shoppers about how many bags they want to buy — rather than just bagging up the groceries quickly and efficiently.

Hey, but at least Californians could feel great about the substantive steps they’ve taken to bolster the ocean environment. OK, I don’t blame you for chuckling or rolling your eyes as you read that line.

Per the Los Angeles Times this week:

According to a report by the consumer advocacy group CALPIRG, 157,385 tons of plastic bag waste was discarded in California the year the law was passed.

By 2022, however, the tonnage of discarded plastic bags had skyrocketed to 231,072 — a 47% jump. Even accounting for an increase in population, the number rose from 4.08 tons per 1,000 people in 2014 to 5.89 tons per 1,000 people in 2022.

So a law that promised to slash plastic waste apparently led to a huge increase. The evidence has been obvious for a while, and it wasn’t hard to see that one coming from the beginning.

For starters, those thin plastic bags that grocery stores used to hand out to shoppers weren’t single-use bags.

My personal shopping experiences aren’t unusual. I always kept a large drawer full of them because I would reuse them to line wastebaskets, pick up dog poo, and whatnot.

I refuse to drive around with dozens of old germ-laden canvas sacks in my truck — I’m not a vagabond, after all — so I just buy however many bags I need. An extra 50 cents per shopping trip isn’t going to bust the budget, so who cares?

In other words, I kept using bags, but this time I had to buy “reusable” bags that were five times thicker than the old ones and no longer fit in my pocket when I walked the dogs. So I always throw out those thick ones because they take up too much space.

I also order online thin bags to use for dog walks and as basket liners — not that any of this matters, given that I don’t litter anyway.

By the way, people who opt for paper bags are using ones that, as studies show, cause significantly more pollutants than their svelte plastic cousins.

This isn’t hindsight. I predicted some of these problems in a column in 2010 when the idea first started circulating in the California Legislature. I’m not prescient, as I was rehashing arguments virtually every critic was making at the time.

It’s easy to go back in time on the internet and read what environmentalists and lawmakers were saying about the bill.

They promised that it would reduce waste, save tax dollars in cleanup costs, and encourage manufacturers to switch to reusable bags.

Well, the waste stream has increased; its doubtful cleanup costs have lessened — and the switch to reusable bags has exacerbated the problem.

I’m convinced many environmentalists are more about annoying Americans about their “consumer” lifestyle than improving the planet, but it still might be nice if they occasionally considered rolling back initiatives after the evidence points to failure.

Instead, Democratic legislators in both houses have introduced bills (Senate Bill 1053 and Assembly Bill 2236) that would now ban the new thicker bags they forced us to use after they banned the thinner ones.

“We are choking our planet with plastic waste,” SB 1053 co-author Sen. Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas) said while unveiling the bill. Yet such environmental discussions might at least start with reality.

Todd Myers, author of the new book Time to Think Small: How Nimble Environmental Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems, reports that tiny Sri Lanka “puts five times as much plastic into the ocean as the entire United States.”

In other words, the plastic-in-the-ocean problem comes largely from dumping in developing nations, just as the bulk of the world’s carbon emissions come from China and India.

There’s some of it in California, but our residents aren’t choking the oceans. Myers points to an innovative recycling group that boasts more ocean cleanup results than any governmental agency, but don’t expect California lawmakers to consider using incentives or private alternatives.

Read rest at American Spectator

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