Californians: Plastic bag ban is no big deal

California will begin phasing out single-use plastic bags at stores statewide over the next two years, a move environmentalists are hailing as historic and significant.

For many of the state's residents, however, it will just be business as usual. That's because more than 100 local plastic bag bans are already in place in the state, including in San Francisco and Los Angeles. People across wide swaths of California already bring their own bags to shop, paying fees of 10 cents to 25 cents for a paper bag or not using bags at all.

As a result, grocers in the state aren't expecting shock waves once the ban goes into effect.

"I think it'll be fine," Gabrielle Stadem, marketing manager for New Earth Market in Yuba City, told CBS MoneyWatch. "People will come around pretty quickly. It's the natural progression for all of California and hopefully at some point the entire U.S."

Stadem said her market has never offered plastic bags. The environmental harm from doing so was just too great, she added. Customers adjusted to the policy with no problem.

In fact, many of the local jurisdictions that have implemented similar bans say grocery stores and shoppers responded positively -- although perhaps not immediately.

"It didn't happen overnight," Laura Kasa, executive director for ocean conservation group Save Our Shores, told CBS MarketWatch. The group is based in Santa Cruz County, which banned bags in 2012.

Kasa said her group watched shoppers leaving stores before the ban and found that only 10 percent of them brought their own bags. A month after the ban took effect, anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of shoppers had their own bags in hand or decided not to take any bag.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Tuesday that would slowly phase out plastic bags at grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies. Businesses that don't comply with the law could receive fines of up to $5,000.

But groups of retailers and grocery stores support the law, saying it's better to have a statewide standard than a patchwork of different rules and fees.

How will consumers respond to the ban? Surveys across California show that once a bag ban is in place, reusable bag usage increases by 40 percent, according to a report last year by Equinox Center, an environmental think tank in San Diego. But paper bag use increases as well, rising from 3 percent to 16 percent.

Environmentalists have crusaded for years to ban plastic bags in the state. The plastics that go into most single-use plastic bags take between 400 and 1,000 years to break down, according to the Equinox report. Across the country, only about 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

Could California lead the way for an eventual nationwide ban? Ireland, Denmark and Australia have all implemented a bag fee and have seen dramatic reductions in plastic bag usage.

Kasa at Save Our Shores said more states would have to pass bag bans before the federal government would get on board. California was not ready to pass a statewide ban years ago, but the prohibitions by dozens of localities helped make a statewide ban possible.

Added Kasa: "If more states can make it happen, then that will tip the federal government to do something."

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.