California lawmakers rejected a bill seeking to ban plastic shopping bags after a contentious debate over whether the state was going too far in trying to regulate personal choice.
The Democratic bill, which failed late Tuesday, would have been the first statewide ban, although a few California cities already prohibit their use.
"Let us make the choice," said San Diego shopper Eric Lightsey. "Not let other people make the choice for us."
Discouraging plastic bag use through fees or bans first gained traction outside of the U.S. in nations such as South Africa, Ireland, China and Bangladesh. In January, Washington, D.C., implemented a 5-cent surcharge on disposable paper and plastic bags.
A handful of California cities already ban single-use plastic bags, after San Francisco became the first to do so in 2007.
Palo Alto, Malibu and Fairfax in Marin County have since followed, while a ban approved in Manhattan Beach is tied up in litigation, said Matthew King, a spokesman for Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based nonprofit that sponsored AB1998.
"I can't stop the fact that they're being manufactured so I might as well use them," said Downtown resident Fred Hochrein.
Supporters of the bill said the 19 billion plastic bags state residents use every year harm the environment and cost the state $25 million annually to collect and transport to landfills.
It had been the subject of a furious lobbying campaign by the plastic bag manufacturing industry, which called it a job killer.
The bill's author, Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Santa Monica, said lawmakers had failed Californians by defeating the measure. But she said the movement to ban plastic bags would continue despite the setback.
"It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when consumers bring their own bags and become good stewards of the environment," Brownley said in a statement early Wednesday morning.
The bill, AB1998, called for the ban to take effect in supermarkets and large retail stores in 2012. It would have applied to smaller stores in 2013.
Republicans and some Democrats opposed it, saying it would add an extra burden on consumers and businesses at a time when many already are struggling financially.
"If we pass this piece of legislation, we will be sending a message to the people of California that we care more about banning plastic bags than helping them put food on their table," said Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest.
The bill's main opponent, the Virginia-based American Chemistry Council, spent millions in lobbying fees, radio ads and even a prime-time television ad attacking the measure. The organization represents plastic bag manufacturers such as Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil Corp.
Last year, it helped defeat an effort by Seattle to impose a 20-cent fee on the use of plastic or paper grocery bags.
The organization issued a statement early Wednesday morning applauding the bill's defeat.
"We congratulate Senate members for discarding a costly bill that provides no real solutions to California's litter problem and would have further jeopardized California's already strained economy," said Tim Shestek, the group's senior director of state affairs.
The Senate took final action at the very end of the legislative session, reflecting how difficult it had been to muster support. The bill received just 14 votes in the Senate, seven short of the majority it needed.
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Brownley had amended her bill in the days leading up to the Senate vote in an ultimately futile attempt to gain more support.
Most significantly, she removed a provision that would have imposed 5-cent fee for customers who forget to bring their own bag and need to buy a recycled paper one. The proceeds would have gone entirely to the retailer.
Under the revised bill, retailers would have been allowed to charge only what it costs them to buy paper bags. Stores would have been required to provide free bags to shoppers who rely on government assistance.
A state law that took effect in 2007 already requires supermarkets and other large retailers to provide plastic bag recycling bins.
In recent weeks, some local government officials said they would take matters into their own hands if the bill failed. According to Heal the Bay, officials in Los Angeles County, Redondo Beach and Santa Monica said they would pursue individual city- and countywide bans in the coming months.