SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The California Grocers Association here believes the so-called "bag tax" proposed in San Francisco -- with a similar measure coming up in Los Angeles -- is a misguided attempt by government to force supermarkets and their customers to resolve issues related to the environment.
"This is a regressive tax on customers that they will have to pay at some point to acquire a grocery bag," Paul Smith, CGA vice president, government relations, told SN. "The main reason for the proposal is to get the supermarket industry to shoulder the environmental agenda when others won't, and then asking our customers to pay for it with an after-the-fact addition of 17 cents or more per bag."
Smith spoke with SN in the wake of efforts by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council to pass separate but similar legislation that would charge customers for each paper or plastic bag used at a store's checkstand -- a charge that could end up as much as 17 cents or more per bag per store visit, Smith said.
Gloria Chan, public information officer for San Francisco's Department of the Environment, said the agency suggested imposing a 17-cent fee per bag to reduce the amount of litter from paper and plastic bags in the city.
"We want to get people to be aware that how they use plastic, as well as paper, has a cost," she told SN. "Our goal is to change the behavior of people and ultimately reduce the amount of waste."
She said the agency came up with the 17-cent amount after studying how bags in San Francisco are disposed of -- 80 million bags, of which 90% are plastic. "We divided that amount by how much it costs the city to dispose of them and the money we were losing," she explained. "Now the city is hiring an outside study from an independent group to see what the costs are."
Various retailers contacted for comment referred SN to CGA.
According to Smith, the goal of the proposed laws is for supermarkets to offer reusable cloth bags. "Some stores tried cloth bags a few years ago, with some selling them and others giving them away the first time. But it was very expensive," he said.
CGA has been aware of the pending legislation for several months, Smith noted. But it was not until San Francisco's Board of Supervisors received a recommendation from the city's Commission on the Environment two weeks ago that the possibility of the charge taking effect became very real.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has called for a study to determine how much the city pays to dispose of paper and plastic bags, which will be used to figure out how much the per-bag charge should be. That study is expected to be completed by April 30, with the supervisors putting the bag charge to a vote in early May.
Smith said he doubts the study will have much influence on how the ultimate vote goes. "If they were to do a thorough evaluation and really examine what happens when you discourage people from using bags, it would probably take longer than two or three months of study because it could have a lot of unintended consequences. But if all you're doing is building a basis to OK the tax, it can be done a lot quicker."
In Los Angeles, proposals under discussion involve plastic bags only and have not yet been made public.
According to Smith, CGA is likely to have a tough time defeating the San Francisco legislation, given the liberal nature of the supervisors there and the city's hostility to big business.
The Board of Supervisors has 11 members, Smith noted, "and it will be very difficult to get a majority [to vote against the proposal] because it's an extremely liberal board that's very hostile to anyone attempting to make money, especially large entities like Safeway as well as smaller companies like Molly Stone's or Andronico's."
Even if CGA is able to get six supervisors to vote against the proposal, Smith added, it would take a vote by only four of the other five supervisors to put the matter on the ballot for a public vote, "so even if we defeat it or simply minimize it, it could end up on the ballot, which means we've got our work cut out for us."
In Los Angeles, the City Council is looking at proposals aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags only, Smith said, "though what they're discussing would not necessarily involve a tax. L.A. is doing a study now, and a tax may be one option. But I'm sure that once the proponents are finished in San Francisco, they will go down to Los Angeles to try to influence developments there."