You may recall Proposition 67, which was on the November 2016 ballot and narrowly passed. That measure banned the use of single-use grocery bags by grocers and certain other retail establishments. The measure requires stores to provide bags that are recycled, compostable and reusable. Affected retailers must obtain certification that the bags conform to state requirements. Finally, stores are required to charge 10 cents for each bag.
The justification for this measure was that the environment — particularly our oceans — was being polluted with plastic bags that are not biodegradable, thereby endangering wildlife and certain ecosystems. The underlying rationale was that, if people are encouraged to reuse bags rather than to dispose of them, there will be less plastic bag pollution.
Although the measure was not effective until Jan. 1, 2017, within days of the election, grocery stores eagerly implemented the new rules and started charging 10 cents for bags that were pre-certified to comply with the new requirements. This gave credence to the proposition’s opposition argument that the grocers would unduly profit from the measure by keeping the incremental revenue.
My daughter, who has cystic fibrosis, was highly susceptible to bacterial infections. After the passage of Proposition 67, her pulmonologist strongly recommended that she not reuse bags because of potential contamination issues.
This past spring, in response to the COVID pandemic, the California Grocers Association echoed similar concerns. Last April, citing labor safety issues, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order temporarily suspending Proposition 67 because of concerns that reusable plastic bags were a potential vector issue in spreading COVID among grocery workers.
Cal/OSHA guidelines were simultaneously changed; grocery employees are no longer allowed to bag groceries in reused bags provided by the customer. If customers want to reuse bags, they must bag their own groceries. Unfortunately, it is usually impossible for those seeking to socially distance themselves from the grocery store employees to bag their groceries. For these reasons, the Cal/OSHA guidelines make it difficult for customers to bag their own groceries. Consequently, to help the consumer avoid the additional cost of having to purchase bags at a time when the economy was in free-fall, the 10-cent charge was temporarily suspended. That suspension expired on June 22.
Many customers either do not want to, or are unable to, bag their own groceries. Therefore, they have a grocery store employee bag their purchases using store-provided bags. As long as the Cal/OSHA guidelines are in place, the original intent of allowing bags to be reused is impractical to implement. Since the bags cannot be reused, it is likely that a large percentage of those bags are simply thrown away, thereby defeating the purpose of enacting Proposition 67.
To date many grocers have not resumed charging for bags, but that is likely to change soon because environmental groups are encouraging customers to call this to the attention of both store managers and regulatory authorities. Furthermore, grocers are incentivized to restore the charge because it offsets grocers’ costs, thereby enhancing the bottom line at a time when already razor-thin margins are stretched even thinner. I was told by a checker at my local grocery store that the store plans to resume charging for bags “in the very near future.”
In our household we use about 15-20 grocery bags per week. At 10 cents per bag, that translates to an extra $75-$100 annually. For larger families, the cost is undoubtedly higher. While the environmental concerns are real, we have to somehow devise a way to accomplish the goal of addressing those trepidations without sticking it to the consumer at a time when household income is stagnant or contracting.
Perhaps the charge can be postponed or reduced until the Cal/OSHA rules revert to their pre-COVID status. If the moratorium on the charge is extended, maybe the grocery stores can establish a bag recycling program to address environmental concerns. Remember, the 10-cent charge for each bag was ostensibly implemented to encourage customers to reuse bags rather than dispose of them — something that is not currently feasible for most consumers. Thus, we have effectively returned to the pre-Proposition 67 regime, with grocers now pocketing 10 cents for every bag dispensed during a period when many households struggle to pay their bills.
We must find a way to balance environmental concerns with the affordability of groceries.
Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.