Assembly Bill 1998, introduced by Assemblywomen Julia Brownley, proposes to ban single-use bags in California. Like many well-intentioned environmental bills, however, AB 1998 is overly broad and could create the exact opposite environmental effect while creating an unreasonable burden for many Californians. The problem lies in the language. Rather than specifying plastic bags, about which there is little disagreement on the negative impact, this bill would “prohibit convenience food stores, foodmarts, and certain specified stores from providing a single-use carryout bag to a customer.” Single-use carryout bags, under this bill, would also include paper bags, which clearly do not have the same negative environmental impact as do plastic bags and which are arguably not even single use. Under this bill, plastic bags would be banned, which would be a good thing, but consumers would be required to pay a minimum of 5 cents per paper bag, which is a bad thing. This amounts to a tax or fee on our most vulnerable, those who have a difficult time just trying to buy food, nonetheless the bags to put the food in.
The argument that paper bags are single use is a fallacy. Paper bags are not only more likely than plastic bags to be re-used but are also more likely to be recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 20% of paper bags are recycled compared to less than 1% of plastic bags. How often do you see thousands of paper bags littering entire cities and oceans like plastic bags do? Paper bags are also commonly re-used for people’s personal household use as well as for recycle and compost bins (which are already required in San Francisco). Perhaps a better bill would incorporate mandatory recycling and composting similar to what San Francisco already has in place. Encouraging people to use reusable bags is something for which we should all strive. Californians will not and should not tolerate a financial punishment for failing to adhere, though. Even in bright green Seattle, a law to impose a bag fee was overwhelmingly rejected at the polls. The last thing that California needs is another expensive ballot measure.
Another fallacy is the idea that merchants will stick with a 5 cents charge for paper bags when they have the ability to charge more. Even if paper bags do not exceed 5 cents, however, this extra cost adds up. Perhaps most of us think it’s fine to pay a few nickels when we forget to bring our own bags to the store, but for those 4.8 million people (about 14% of our state, according to the US Census) who live in poverty and the millions more who are a paycheck away from poverty, a few nickels mean a lot.
We share the same goals—to eliminate plastic bags and to encourage reusable bags. In the world of behavior modification, however, punishment will never be as adequate as incentive and reinforcement. A tax or fee is the wrong way to change people’s behavior. Carrots are stronger than sticks. We should all strongly support a ban on plastic bags for all of the reasons that AB 1998 supporters state. But adding a fee to paper bags, however small that fee may be, is a short-sighted and backward move that should be removed immediately so that this bill can be one that we’re all proud to support. I applaud Assemblywoman Brownley’s goals and actions; however, if the bill is not amended to remove the fee for paper bags, I challenge each senator to cast the unpopular vote, but the correct vote: No.