Editorial: Grocery bag fee should be higher

A proposed ban on “single use” grocery bags in San Luis Obispo County has morphed into a proposal that would allow stores to provide sturdier versions of plastic and paper bags — for a price.

Supermarkets and other large stores would be required to charge a nickel per bag, which is about what it costs them to provide the bags to consumers.

That’s workable — a total ban on all plastic and paper was far too heavy-handed — but the ordinance still needs tweaking.

If the county is serious about wanting to wean shoppers from plastic and paper shopping bags, it must give them a good reason to make the switch to reusable totes. And we don’t believe the proposed nickel-a-bag charge for the thicker paper and plastic bags is going to do it.

Consider: A full bag of groceries costs, on average, $30. That means a seven-bag trip to the supermarket is around $210.

In that context, a 35-cent charge is hardly even noticeable.

To be truly effective, the fee should be at least 25 cents a bag. We’d love to see the bulk of that money go to recycling programs, litter cleanup, educational programs and the like.

However, due to passage of Proposition 26 — the 2010 state voter initiative that, among other things, restricts the ability of local governments to impose fees on businesses — the county cannot collect and distribute that revenue.

Supermarkets and other stores covered by the ordinance could contribute the fees to environmental programs, however.

Ideally, that’s what should happen.

True, a 25-cent fee would not be popular. There’s been opposition even to the 5-cent charge. Opponents claim that charging for grocery bags amounts to an unfair “tax” that consumers can ill afford right now.

We don’t buy it.

Plastic and paper bags are a convenience that we all take for granted, but the fact is, these bags aren’t really “free.” Merchants pass on the cost to all of their customers, which means shoppers who dutifully carry their totes to the checkout aisle are subsidizing shoppers who continue to use paper and plastic bags.

That’s not fair. Even worse, those “free” bags too often wind up in our landfills or as litter in our beaches, our oceans and our highways.

If the county is serious about cutting down — and eventually eliminating — such waste, it must move forward with some form of bag ban.

We strongly urge the Integrated Waste Management Authority board of directors to completely ban the worst offenders — flimsy, single-use paper and plastic bags. As an interim measure, we urge the board to continue to allow sturdier plastic and paper bags to be distributed, but the fee per bag should be at least 25 cents. Retailers should keep enough to cover their costs — generally around 5 cents per bag —and contribute the rest of the fees collected to environmental programs.

To reduce the economic burden on low-income families, the board should move forward with plans to provide free reusable bags through social service agencies.

If those measures fail to significantly reduce San Luis Obispo County’s bag waste, the board should reconsider a total ban on plastic and paper sacks.

Bag ban under consideration

The Integrated Waste Management Authority board of directors meets at 1:30 p.m. today at the Board of Supervisors’ chambers in the County Government Center, 1055 Monterey St., to discuss a paper and plastic bag ban. The board will consider alternatives but will not take final action.