04:13 PM PDT on Wednesday, August 18, 2010

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY, Contributing Writer

At grocery store checkout stands throughout Inland Southern California, consumers have a third option to the traditional paper or plastic bags, reusable canvas shopping bags. Supermarkets from Stater Bros. to Fresh & Easy and Trader Joe’s are offering the option of purchasing reusable bags priced between 99 cents and $6.99 each.

But if a bill currently being considered in the state Senate is approved, one option — the single-use supermarket plastic bag — would be banned. The proposal seems likely to be approved after a statewide trade association announced their support, getting behind a statewide measure over a growing number of city ordinances they claim makes compliance difficult.

Based in Sacramento, the California Grocers Association recently announced its support for Assembly Bill 1998, introduced in February by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica. The bill has already passed the Assembly and is being considered in the Senate. It was referred to the Rules Committee Aug. 12.

It also has the support of two local supermarket chains – Stater Bros. Markets and Fresh & Easy.

Jack Brown, chairman and chief executive of San Bernardino-based State Bros., said the company supported Brownley’s efforts and would follow the law if passed.

“It’s important the law affect everyone,” Brown said in an interview. Despite the bill’s environmental benefits, Brown questioned why it didn’t affect everyone, such as allowing fast-food restaurants among businesses that could still use plastic bags.

“Our customers are concerned about the environment, so we are concerned,” he said. “We live in the same communities as our customers. We will continue to (make) reusable bags available at all our markets.”

Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott described the measure as “an important bill” and said the company supports it.

Brownley’s bill proposes to ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and stores of more than 10,000 square feet that sell food products and include pharmacies, starting in 2012. The same law would apply to convenience food stores and food marts in 2013.

“We are taught to reduce, reuse, recycle in that order because we can’t recycle our way to a better world,” Brownley said. “This bill gets to the root of our litter problem by reducing our use of disposable bags.”

She argued that a statewide ban would persuade shoppers to switch to reusable bags and save the state almost $25 million a year it spends on cleaning up plastic bag litter. Californians discard about 19 billion plastic bags annually, according to the bill’s analysis report.

While the California Grocers Association has opposed similar bills, it has supported Brownley’s latest legislative efforts.

“The bill creates a uniform, statewide standard to help level the playing field among food retailers,” said California Grocers Association President Ronald Fong, in a statement. “It addresses the issue of single-use carryout bags across all California jurisdictions and provides the most environmental gain with the least competitive disruption for retailers.”

Fong said changing consumer behavior will be challenging, but believes Californians will embrace the change.

If the law is passed affected stores would be required to eliminate the use of plastic bags and to make reusable bags available to customers at checkout stands. The stores could also sell single-use bags made of recycled paper for a cost of at least 5 cents if the bag contains at least 40 percent biodegradable content.

Brown said Stater Bros. has been active over the last three years in promoting the use of reusable bags at its 167 stores. The canvas bags at Stater Bros. sell for 99 cents.

Stater Bros. also features collection bins at each store for customers to recycle plastic bags and wrapping, he said.

“We sold over 300,000 canvas bags in 2009,” Brown said. “Last year, we recycled 2.9 million pounds of plastic bags. The paper bags we use are made with 100 percent recycled materials.”

At Trader Joe’s, prices range from 99 cents for a standard canvas bag to $6.99 for a blue, eight-gallon insulated reusable bag. The chain, which operates 10 stores in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, uses brown paper bags that are made from 40 percent recycled materials and has a nationwide program that offers incentives from drawings for products or gift certificates to customers that use their own bags.

Janet Little, a spokeswoman for San Diego-based Henry’s Farmers Market, said more and more of their customers are using reusable bags. “In my opinion, one out of three customers brings in their own reusable bag when shopping,” she said. The company offers five-cent discounts per bag to customers who bring their own.

While reusable shopping bags have become a popular item, many consumers use them over and over again without a thought about the health consequences of using dirty bags. A recent study by Loma Linda University and the University of Arizona found reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health.

“If this is the direction California wants to go, our policymakers should be prepared to address the ramifications for public health,” said co-author Ryan Sinclair, a professor at Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health, in a statement.

The report noted that “a sudden or significant increase in use of reusable bags without a major public education campaign on how to reduce cross contamination would create the risk of significant adverse public health impact.”

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