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The Final Word by Chuck Swann
Plastic "T-shirt" bags so thoroughly conquered the retail sacking field that most producers of kraft paper simply surrendered and closed their bag-making operations. Some tried to find alternative uses for their brown paper, but such outlets were already well-supplied. And so a certain chunk of the kraft paper industry (read mostly southern pine) seemed destined to fade into insecurity. Except maybe not so much.

The sometime bellwether State of California is signaling "hold on." It is doing so through its legislature's passage of what is known as SB 270, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 30, 2014. This act, effective July 1, 2015, would prohibit grocery stores and pharmacies from making single-use plastic bags available to customers. And by July, 2016, convenience stores and liquor stores also would be subject to the ban. All customers would be encouraged to bring their own bags or carriers, but those who don't would be charged at least 10 cents for recycled paper or reusable plastic bags that meet state standards for durability.

Across the country, about 150 cities and counties can show that their plastic bag bans actually work. Studies in San Jose, California, for example, show that the percentage of customers not leaving stores with a bag increased from 13% to 44% and plastic bag litter in the city was greatly reduced.

SB 270 has aroused furious criticism from every imaginable aspect and interest group. Plastic bag makers were first in line, but the legislature has sought to mollify them by offering loans and grants to manufacturers in the state who will retool their operations and make reusable plastic bags. Some participants in the party criticize the bag fee provision, saying that it would punish poor people. Advocates, however, point out that anyone who qualifies for food stamps or a nutrition program for low-income women and their babies can, under a provision in the bill, get bags for free.

The bag fee has been particularly controversial because it is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for stores, which they will be allowed to keep. Since the cost of paper bags would be only a fraction of this amount, the bag fee would be a new profit center for stores. This caused the California Grocers Association, which had always opposed any bag bans, to reverse course and come out in favor of SB 270.

Just as soon as the governor signed the bill, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastic bag industry, announced a plan for gathering the 504,760 voter signatures required to qualify for a referendum to repeal SB 270 on California's November, 2016, ballot. The association engaged a national signature-gathering company to conduct its campaign.

Surprisingly, the American Forests & Paper Association joined the parade of those in opposition to the bill, which on its face would seem to be a boon to paper bag makers. AF&PA's statement said, "We oppose fees and bans on paper packaging and were disappointed that Governor Brown signed SB 270 into law. Paper bags are a sustainable option for consumers and we support Californians' right to make the final decision on SB 270."

Chuck Swann is the senior editor of Paperitalo Publications. He can be reached by email at chuck.swann@taii.com.

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