Editorial: California should lead the way to sacking plastic bags

Plastic grocery bags could get the sack in California — as they should. AB 1998, a proposal to ban plastic bags starting in 2012, has cleared the state Assembly and moved to the Senate. If it passes, California will become the first state in the nation to outlaw plastic grocery bags.

We urge the full Legislature to approve the ban, with a couple of tweaks that we’ll get to later.

True, a ban on plastic grocery bags won’t save the world — it won’t even save our little corner of it — but it will help reduce the load of garbage that winds up in landfills, oceans, rivers and parks.

It’s also an opportunity for California to lead by example and will, we hope, encourage other states to follow suit.

There are plenty of sound arguments for banning plastic grocery bags. Here are a few:

They contribute to marine pollution, perhaps best exemplified by the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a collection of floating plastic debris estimated to be at least as big as Texas, if not larger.

They are a huge source of litter on land as well, often winding up dirtying beaches, parks and roads.

Few of the bags are recycled; according to EPA research from 2005, only around 5 percent of bags were recycled.

It takes hundreds of years for the bags to degrade — and that’s under the right conditions.

True, paper bags aren’t innocuous either.

Compared to plastic bags, they require more energy to produce and transport and they, too, can wind up in landfills and contribute to litter.

Given the drawbacks of both paper and plastic, there was discussion in the Legislature of banning both. Politicians feared that would be too big of a change — we agree — and instead, the Assembly opted for the 5-cent charge for paper bags and required that at least 40 percent of their content be from recycled material.

That’s better than nothing. However, we doubt that 5 cents is enough of an incentive to entice people to remember to bring their reusable cloth bags to the grocery. A bigger surcharge — 25 cents a bag, say — might encourage people to think twice, and we urge the Senate to consider that.

Another concern: The bill as currently written would allow grocers to pocket the surcharge on bags. We’d prefer to see at least a portion go to environmental research, education and cleanups. It could even be used to subsidize the purchase of reusable cloth bags for consumers.

Still, the current version is a step in the right direction, and we’d rather see that bill pass than none at all.

Will we miss plastic bags?

You bet. They come in handy for disposing of dog poop and lining garbage cans. In a pinch, they can serve as lunch bags or carry toiletries when you’re going on a trip.

But overall, they do far more harm than good — and giving up free plastic bags is a small sacrifice that will pay off for generations to come.