By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

California often pushes the envelop on environmental causes, and could become the first U.S. state to ban those pesky plastic bags that fly out from grocery stores by bajillions every minute of every day, only to end up in trees, waterways and clinging to other trash.

Plastic bags: a smart or dumb idea?

It might not seem like a big deal, but such a ban — the law under consideration would forbid the use of plastic bags and charge 5 cents for paper grocery bags, pushing consumers to employ reusable totes — would be a symbolic victory for people everywhere who are opposed to waste and needless disposable goods. It would relieve oceans, rivers, parks, streets and you name it of this persistent trash (and clear up a lot of cupboard space devoted to these ubiquitous little do-nothings). But most of all, it would send a signal. The hope on one side (and the fear on the other) is that other states will follow California, toppling the need for this petroleum-based product across America.

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One sign of how this fight is getting larger than life is that the American Chemistry Council is spending significant money to fight it, arguing that it will claim jobs (for the people who make the plastic bags) and create a bureaucracy. (See their commercial at the bottom of this post.)

The jobs argument has currency in today’s economy, though we suspect that the production of plastic bags is a highly automated process. As for the bureaucracy accusation, it seems about as thin as…a plastic bag.

The bill’s author Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, has responded that no new bureaucracy will be needed to enforce this measure. Grocery stores can comply by providing paper bags, which most already offer anyway, and consumers still have a choice of paying for paper or getting with the reusable trend. And the clincher: The California Grocer’s Association supports the ban.

The lawmaker also points out that keeping disposable plastic bags could cost taxpayers more than banning them. With Californians using 19 billion plastic bags a year, the state spends $25 million a year to dispose of plastic bag waste, her office reports.

Brownley has vowed to fight the American Chemistry Council, which represents the petroleum and plastic industries. She says their fervent opposition is no surprise.

“This is their (ACC) livelihood. They are going to fight tooth and nail to make sure this plastic bag ban doesn’t happen,” Brownley said. “California is the battleground. They know if California goes, so will our neighboring states Washington, Oregon and the rest of the country.

“The American Chemistry Council spent millions of dollars in Seattle, Washington, to stop a ban there a few years ago and they are spending millions more to stop it here. This is a David and Goliath battle and we’re determined to be a formidable David.”

Brownley’s bill AB 1998, supported by the California grocers and the United Food and Commercial Workers Association, passed the Assembly in June. Now, the Senate is adding an amendment that Brownley’s office anticipates will make the measure  stronger.

If the two houses agree by the deadline next Tuesday, the bill would go forward to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Proponents see banning plastic bags as a no brainer when it comes to sustainability. Heal the Bay, a group concerned about plastic waste, produced this  satirical mockumentary explaining why. “The Majestic Plastic Bag,” narrated by Jeremy Irons, drives its point home, and is good for a few giggles too:

Now here’s the Chemistry Council’s ad opposing plastic bags. It’s dramatic and challenging. Ironically, it denigrates the plastic bag ban as lightweight stuff, while delivering a pretty heavy-handed message against it. Parts of this ad are nonsensical, like the idea that California lawmakers would rather ban plastic bags than retain teachers. What? The argument here seems to be that any money spent on cleaning the environment comes out of other buckets of money, like that for teacher retention.

But if we followed that argument to its logical conclusion, that is, we never cleaned up anything because it took time and money away from other things, well then the entire world would look like your 14-year-old’s bedroom. With one key difference, 14-year-olds grow up, and clean up.

Plastic, near as we can tell, doesn’t ever really go away.

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