Much of the movement to reduce ocean plastic pollution has focused on the single-use plastic bags used to cart purchases away from the supermarket. But there’s another type of plastic bag that is ubiquitous in grocery stores across the country: the handleless plastic bags typically on offer by the produce or meat sections for shoppers to tear off and use to separate their apples or cold cuts from the rest of their haul.
In California grocery stores, however, these other plastic bags will soon be a thing of the past. The state became the first in the nation to ban them in grocery stores when Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to that effect into law September 30.
“This kind of plastic film is not recyclable. It’s a contaminant in almost any bin you put it into,” Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for pro-bill group Californians Against Waste, told The San Jose Mercury News. “It flies around landfills and flies out of trucks. It gets stuck on gears at recycling facilities. And it contaminates compost. It’s a problematic product we want to get rid of.”
The bill, known as Senate Bill (SB) 1046, stipulates that stores can only provide so-called “precheckout bags” if they are compostable or made from recyclable paper.
“The bill would define a ‘precheckout bag’ for this purpose to mean a bag provided to a customer before the customer reaches the point of sale, that is designed to protect a purchased item from damaging or contaminating other purchased items in a checkout bag, or to contain an unwrapped food item,” the bill reads.
The ban was originally going to go into effect in 2023, but the California Grocers Association successfully lobbied to push the date back to January 1, 2025, according to The San Jose Mercury News.
The bill builds on the success of Proposition 67, a ballot measure that banned plastic carry-out bags in 2016.
“There was a 72% drop in grocery bag litter in the state just one year after it was fully implemented,” Californians Against Waste Legislative Director Nicole Kurian told ABC7.
The original ban was passed based on arguments about the role that petroleum-based plastics play in the climate crisis and the ways in which they pollute the terrestrial and marine environments, according to The San Jose Mercury News. However, another factor also influenced the new bill’s passage. Also in 2016, the state passed a bill to reduce the amount of organic waste tossed into landfills by 75 percent by 2025. This led composting programs to sprout up, but plastic produce bags can contaminate the state’s compost.
“Requiring compostable bags be provided by grocery stores in lieu of plastic produce bags is a critical step to increasing and cleaning our composting streams,” the bill’s author Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) said in a statement posted by Californians Against Waste. ‘SB 1046 is also an indispensable tool our local jurisdictions can use to meet our state’s composting and organic waste diversion requirements.”
The loudest voice against the bill was the California Grocers Association, which argued that the bags were essential for hygiene reasons, according to The San Jose Mercury News. The bill’s supporters countered that compostable or paper bags could be just as effective at keeping food separate when necessary.
The California Grocers Association has now accepted that the bill will be law, however.
“Now that the governor has signed SB 1046, the grocery community is focused on preparing to comply with the new law by 2025,” the group’s senior director of communications Nate Rose told SFGATE in an email. “There are many moving pieces to navigate, mostly concerning how to source and scale compostable and recyclable pre-checkout bags for our shoppers in a supply chain environment that has not been without its challenges in the past few years.”
Ordinary shoppers overall seemed pleased with the measure, at least according to interviews conducted by ABC7 in San Jose.
“We have to solve the plastic problem because we’re idiots,” shopper Barbara Dixon told the network. “Humans have got to stop doing crazy stuff and start fixing things.”