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Stop me before I buy food

POSTED April 19, 2013 10:20 p.m.

There is no problem too flimsy for California's nanny lawmakers, as witnessed by the many laws that state solons have proposed to keep constituents from getting free plastic bags at the grocery. Those teensy plastic bags are cheap. They're lightweight. They're energy-efficient. People use them a lot, which means that they can end up as litter. That can be ugly. So Sacramento Democrats keep concocting bills to outlaw their idea of blight — not the homeless and not unemployment but bags. When Sacramento lawmakers see an opportunity to stick it to employed people who buy things, nothing can stop them.

State Sen. Alex Padilla has a bill similar to a bill by Assemblyman Marc Levine that would ban grocers and big retailers from giving away single-use plastic bags but would allow them to charge for recycled paper bags.

"The goal and purpose behind the legislation is to wean us off of single-use bags period," Padilla told me. Single-use bags, he explained, create litter and drive up recycling costs for local governments.

As if to prove that the law is aimed at working stiffs who pay taxes, Padilla's SB 405 even exempts participants in California's Women, Infants and Children supplemental food program by requiring stores to provide reusable grocery bags or recycled paper bags to WIC participants.

Can't WIC participants recycle? I asked Padilla. "That's done out of a concern, which some have raised, on the impact on low-income families," he explained.

When making laws, California's lawmakers often ignore the most abiding of all laws, the law of unintended consequences.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents makers of plastic bags, held a conference call Tuesday to warn of adverse consequences to the state's effort to combat global warming. (I like how the group calls itself "progressive" as if they were a bunch of San Francisco supervisors.) Paper bags require more water to make than plastic bags, Chairman Mark Daniels argued. Reusable bags save energy only if people wash and reuse them. Then there's the California jobs issue.

Padilla is confident that Californians will use reusable bags. Hence, his bill would help the environment.

A California Senate Environmental Quality Committee analysis of Padilla's SB 405 discusses the possible "public health implications," as reusable bags "can harbor bacteria such as coliform bacteria." Washing bags can help, the analysis noted; alas, a study found that 97 percent of Californians and Arizonans said they never wash their bags.

No worries. SB 405 would require reusable bags to include cleaning care instructions. Because people always read the many warnings and instructions mandated by state law — yes, that was sarcasm — the Padilla warning just might reduce the number of consumers who don't wash their bags so that — what? — maybe only 96 percent of consumers will be at risk of getting sick from their unwashed reused bags.

That's why the Romans cooked up the term "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware).

It may well be that in another 10 years, Sacramento will have to come up with a new law to deal with a glut of unused reusable bags.

I look around California and see serious problems — undereducated children, one of the country's highest unemployment rates, homeless people and violent crime.

To sum up, the Padilla bill probably would reduce litter, but it could increase greenhouse gases and could make people sick. And it most definitely would inconvenience consumers.

But in this state, if there's one group Sacramento can push around, it's not people who make the streets unseemly, and it's not the menaces to society; it's hardworking taxpayers who buy things. They are the softest target.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

 

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