This common item is on the way out at California grocery stores

For most grocery shoppers, they are as familiar as carts with wobbly wheels, aisles of cereal boxes and checkout stands full of juicy celebrity tabloids. But in California their days are numbered.

Big rolls of thin plastic bags, often used only once to hold fruit and vegetables, or to put around packages of meat — then tossed in the garbage soon after — are going the way of green stamps and manual cash registers.

Under a bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom late last week, California will become the first state in the nation to phase out single-use plastic produce bags in supermarkets. The bags, called “pre-checkout bags” in grocery store lingo, must be replaced no later than Jan. 1, 2025, with recycled paper bags, or bags made of compostable plastic.

“This kind of plastic film is not recyclable. It’s a contaminant in almost any bin you put it into,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste, an environmental group that supported the bill.

“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, SB 1046, by Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, passed the Legislature on a party-line vote, with most Democrats voting for it and most Republicans voting against it.

The main opponent was the California Grocers Association.

Nick Rose, a spokesman for the association, said Tuesday he had no comment on why the group opposed the bill.

But in a letter the grocer’s association wrote to Eggman in April, the group asked for supermarkets to be given until 2025, rather than 2023, to phase in the new compostable bags, so that manufacturers would have more time to ramp up. Eggman granted that delay, but did not grant the group’s request for the bill to include a ban on local cities putting in place similar rules or fines for stores using single-use plastic produce bags.

“They play a pivotal role in protecting consumers from possible contamination and food illnesses that result from raw packaged meats touching other products,” wrote Leticia Garcia, director of state government relations for California Grocers Association in the April letter.  “These bags also provide an additional layer of protection when breakables, like wine bottles, are placed in grocery bags with other products.”

Some grocery stores already are using compostable produce bags. Trader Joe’s put them in all of its stores in 2019 as part of an effort to reduce plastic, foam containers and other packaging.

“We’re not banning the bags,” Lapis said. “We are just requiring a more-sustainable type of bags. You’ll still have a place to put your fruits and vegetables that won’t leak.”

What’s unusual about the new law is that it passed without much notice or controversy.

Six years ago, following a major battle between the plastics industry and environmental groups, California voters approved a statewide ballot measure, Proposition 67, to ban single-use plastic bags at grocery stores’ checkout lines.

Part of the argument by supporters then was that billions of the bags are produced using oil, which causes pollution and greenhouse gases. Many end up as roadside litter, or trash at the beach and ocean, where they can entangle and kill animals that ingest them.

After dozens of California cities, then the state, banned the bags, their frequency as litter fell.

From 2010 to 2019, the number of plastic bags picked up at beaches, creeks and lakes by volunteers at California’s annual Coastal Cleanup Day dropped 61%, from 65,736 to 25,768.

“We saw a steady decrease in the number of plastic bags we are finding in the environment,” said Eben Schwartz, marine debris manager for the California Coastal Commission. “They were regularly among the top five items we found, but they fell completely out of the top 10.”

An increase in take-out and delivery food during the pandemic generated an increase in plastic bag litter in the past two years, Schwartz added.

As a result of the ballot measure, most grocery shoppers in California now either use paper bags from the store, bring their own reusable bags, or at some stores are given the option of thicker plastic checkout bags. Through a loophole in the law, those are still allowed because they are classified as reusable, and not “single use.”

But tens of millions of the single-use plastic produce bags still remain in the stores.

The latest push to phase them out was driven by a new state composting law. That law, signed in 2016 by former Gov. Jerry Brown, requires the state to reduce organic waste disposal at landfills by 75% by 2025. It has led cities across California to hand out small composting bins for food waste to residents. The goal is to preserve landfill space, and reduce methane emissions from landfills, which worsen climate change.

Petroleum plastic bags contaminate large composting operations. Compostable bags don’t. Most are made of corn or potato starches. Still, not all garbage companies allow them to be mixed with compost. Under the new law, for a bag to qualify as “compostable” it must conform to national standards that require it to fully break down within six months at a commercial composting facility and leave no toxic residue.

That doesn’t mean you can litter with them at the beach or anywhere else, Schwartz said. They are made to break down under the heat and other conditions at big composting facilities, not in the general outdoors.

“Opt for paper,” he said. “It’s significantly more recyclable. And it will break down if it finds its way into the marine environment. Decide whether you really need your bananas in a bag. You probably don’t.”

Under a new bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, grocery stores in California will be required to phase out single-use plastic produce bags, like these in a Safeway store in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Monday Oct. 3, 2022, and replace them with either recycled paper bags or compostable plastic bags that break down naturally. ((Photo: Paul Rogers, Bay Area News Group))

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