Commentary: Plastic bag ban is a nice cause but flimsy idea

Surely, the path for any right-thinking liberal is clear when it comes to banning plastic grocery bags.

Petrochemical giant Exxon, chemical titan Dow and the American Chemical Council are on one side, employing high-priced consultants including former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and John McCain's presidential campaign strategist Steve Schmidt to defend the cursed plastic bags.

Protectors of sea turtles, dolphins and estuaries everywhere are on the other side. The "correct" side includes almost every environmentalist group, plus Hollywood glitterati Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Seinfeld" fame and Jeremy Irons, the Shakespearean actor who was the voice of Scar, Simba's evil nemesis in "Lion King."

The fight is over Assembly Bill 1998, one of the year's most far-reaching bills. It would affect every Californian by imposing a fee for the use of paper grocery bags and by banning plastic grocery bags, said to be the scourge of wildlife, waterways and landscapes.

"It is about getting rid of single-use bags, changing behavior and utilizing reusable bags," said the bill's author, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica.

It might seem right and relevant to side with small animals and against single-use plastic bags, and it may not be easy aligning yourself with the chemical industry. But take a breath. Ask a few questions: How many plastic bags end up as litter? What might the toll be on wildlife? No one knows for certain.

Sure, the American Chemical Council has spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on its "Stop the bag police" ad campaign. But backers of AB 1998 are not without significant supporters, including Safeway, the California Grocers Association, and California Retailers Association.

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