Plastics industry pushing to halt bag-ban momentum
Most cities around the bay, and nearly 150 cities and counties statewide, bar groceries and drug stores from giving single-use plastic bags to customers. The fear is that the lightweight, hard-to-break-down sacks will end up as litter in rivers and other waterways and choke wildlife.
While shoppers seem to have taken to the new rules without much fuss — even as they often pay 10 cents for a paper bag to cover the added cost for retailers — plastic-bag makers are far from accepting the change.
With California out in front of a nationwide trend that could cut deep into the industry’s profits, plastic manufacturers are pushing a state ballot initiative that would allow them to keep at least some of California’s bag market, while putting the rest of the country on notice that they’re willing to fight for their product.
Proposition 67 is a referendum on a California-wide ban on plastic bags. Gov. Jerry Brown signed off on the far-reaching restriction two years ago, but the plastics industry exercised a provision in the state Constitution that allows for a popular vote on a law before it takes effect.
The industry spent close to \\$3 million to qualify the referendum for the Nov. 8 ballot through a signature drive, according to state elections data, and has since poured a few million more into trying to win over voters — far outspending its opponents. South Carolina bag giant Hilex Poly is the biggest funder.
“If they can stop (the ban) here, that takes away a lot of momentum in other places,” said David Lewis, executive director of the environmental nonprofit group Save the Bay and a supporter of the prohibition.
A yes vote on Proposition 67 supports the enactment of the 2014 ban, while a no vote rejects it. Whether or not the measure passes, existing city and county laws barring plastic bags would remain in place.
Advocates for the ban, who include conservation groups as well as grocery stores, say the effort to throw out the law represents not only bad environmental policy but also an exploitation of California’s ballot system.
Industry representatives say a statewide ban unfairly targets plastic, which they bill as an inexpensive, versatile material that is convenient for shoppers. They say bag prohibitions don’t necessarily benefit the environment.
“You can ban anything and it goes away, but do the alternative impacts increase the net impact?” said Phil Rozenski, policy chair for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a lobbying group for the plastics industry.
Studies show plastic-bag bans have prompted increased use of paper bags, which opponents say aren’t necessarily any better than plastic. While paper might not cause as much litter, it requires cutting down forests and often more energy to make, even when recycled materials are used.
The plastics industry has also highlighted its efforts to increase recycling of its bags and make the sacks more biodegradable.
Rebecca Taylor, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate who has researched bag laws, wouldn’t weigh in on whether California’s proposed ban would be an environmental boon, noting that there are too many factors to consider.
However, her recent paper looking at plastic-bag bans in the East Bay found that while the use of paper rose, the overall number of throwaway bags — paper and plastic — dropped.
She projects that a statewide ban would reduce the number of plastic bags from grocery trips by 5.3 billion a year, while the number of paper bags would increase by 596 million.
“But it’s not just the disposable bags that we should be thinking about,” Taylor said. “It’s the reusable bags that we want people switching to.”
Making reusable bags cheaper and more accessible, she said, is the best way to trim the environmental toll of hauling groceries.
Prop. 67 mimics most local ordinances in California by not only banning plastic bags but also requiring shoppers to pay 10 cents for an alternative bag like a paper one, which must be made of at least partially recycled material under the law. The fee, in addition to helping stores recoup the expense of using non-plastic bags, is meant to encourage shoppers to bring their own totes.
Voters weighing in on the initiative must also contend with a corollary measure, Prop. 65, promoted by the plastics industry. Opponents call it a political gambit designed to chip away support for Prop. 67.
If the statewide plastic bag ban survives, Prop. 65 would redirect the revenues that retailers get from the 10-cent paper-bag fee to an environmental fund administered by the state Wildlife Conservation Board.
Industry representatives have long insisted that the bag ban and its 10-cent charge are a money grab by grocery stores.
“It’s the most profitable item in the grocery today,” Rozenski said.
The California Grocers Association, which supports the plastic-bag ban, said that isn’t true — most retailers aren’t making money off the fee. Paper bags can cost up to 10 cents to buy, according to the association, a big jump from plastic, which is as cheap as a penny a bag.
The 10-cent fee has been a central pillar of plastic bag bans, helping to shore up support from retailers, and advocates of the statewide prohibition generally oppose Prop. 65. They say reimbursing retailers is necessary for bans to succeed, and they call Prop. 65 a ploy by the plastics industry to undermine them.
“It was put on the ballot strictly to confuse voters,” said Lewis of Save the Bay. “There’s no environmental advocacy behind it.”