On Thursday, May 30, 2013, the California Senate voted 18-17 in favor of a bill that would prohibit grocery stores and pharmacies from offering single-use plastic bags beginning January 1, 2015, and convenience stores and liquor stores from the same by July 1, 2016. However, because the bill required a minimum of 21 votes, it did not pass. The sponsor of the bill, State Senator Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, immediately petitioned for reconsideration of the bill, which was granted.

SB405, the bill that would be a law, purports to require, among other things, the aforementioned stores to offer recyclable paper bags that contain a threshold amount of recycled materials, compostable bags, or reusable cloth or plastic grocery bags. Proponents of the bill cited a range of benefits, from the ideological (protection of the ocean and ocean wildlife) to the practical (cleaner streets, parks, and general municipal landscaping). Opponents argued the rise in energy costs and the increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from manufacturing recyclable paper bags, and the potential health hazards of non-sterile reusable bags, as well as the concern that this would encourage additional, unnecessary regulations in other sectors.

While SB 405 is awaiting reconsideration, plastic bag bans are gaining momentum on the municipal level. To date, more than 70 cities and counties have adopted plastic bag bans to one degree or another. Prominent California cities and counties with such bans currently in effect include Culver City, Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Los Angeles County, Pasadena, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Luis Obispo (county and city). Other major cities, like Sacramento and Irvine, are on the cusp of enacting plastic ban ordinances within their borders. This is significant because one of the more notable characteristics of SB405, should it eventually pass, is that it would not preempt local laws governing the regulation of plastic bags that are currently in place, provided the local laws meet the minimum requirements of the state bill.

The immediate costs of plastic ban ordinances are felt by consumers — almost universally each municipal plastic bag ban requires consumers either to purchase a reusable grocery bag or pay ten cents for a recyclable paper bag — but there are stiff penalties attached to the ordinances and proposed laws of which affected business should be aware. In San Francisco, for instance, non-compliant businesses face fines from $100 for a first offense up to a maximum of $500 for subsequent offenses. SB405 itself proposed even more drastic penalties, beginning at $500 up to a maximum of $2,000 per subsequent violation. The proposed Sacramento ordinance is potentially the most draconian, permitting civil penalties to range from $250 to $25,000 per day that a violation continues.

Retail businesses, particularly those in the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical sectors, are advised to be aware of the existence and development of such laws and ordinances.