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California seeks to ban free, single-use carryout bags

The California State Assembly recently approved a bill that would make it the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic and paper bags from being handed out free of charge at supermarkets, drug stores, convenience stores and liquor stores.

The proposed law, which was introduced in February of this year, would apply to supermarkets, chain pharmacies and other large grocery retailers beginning Jan. 1, 2012, and at convenience stores, neighborhood markets and liquor stores beginning July 1, 2013.

The bill, AB 1998, now heads for an Aug. 2 hearing before the Senate Appropriation Committee. It is supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as the California Grocers Association.

“AB 1998 creates a uniform, statewide standard to help level the playing field among food retailers,” said California Grocers Association president Ronald Fong. “It addresses the issue of single-use carryout bags across all California jurisdictions and provides the most environmental gain with the least competitive disruption for retailers.”

Under the new legislation, shoppers who don’t bring their own bags to the store would have to purchase paper bags (made of at least 40 percent recycled material) or reusable totes, which all stores will be required to offer starting Jan. 1, 2011. Recycled paper bags will be priced “at a reasonable cost” according to the bill’s language, but not less than five cents each.

Kirk Sandow, director of the Albertson’s grocery store in Fallbrook said that he was not aware of AB 1998, but that similar legislation has been “tossed around” for the past couple of years.

“I think it’s a good idea for the environment,” he said. “Think of all the plastic bags that we use on a yearly basis.” Sandow estimates that his store uses an average of 10,000 bags a week.

According to the Californians Against Waste Web site, California retailers currently distribute approximately 19 billion plastic bags to their customers each year, many of which end up as marine litter. Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, the bill’s sponsor, states that California spends $25 million annually to collect and bury a portion of the bags.

AB 1998 would also repeal an existing law that requires stores to have a recycling program for customers to return used plastic carryout bags. The Fallbrook Alberston’s store has a healthy in-house recycling program for hard and soft plastic, cardboard, and other materials, and Sandow said Fallbrook residents are diligent recyclers. The store sees a high rate of return to the recycling bins provided at the front door and at each check stand.

If the legislation goes through, Sandow predicts some initial backlash from customers having to pay for a service that, up to this point, has been free, but he says that people’s mindsets will eventually change.

“Every new legislation has some initial adjustment,” he said. “But once people get used to it, especially if it’s good, then they’ll change.”

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