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The Fight Over Plastic Grocery Bags

A rare ballot referendum in California aims to keep the state from banning free, single-use bags. Why the challenge? Where California goes, the conventional wisdom has it, so goes the nation, particularly when it comes to the environment.
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(Photo: padu_foto/Shutterstock)

(Photo: padu_foto/Shutterstock)

Just when Californians were getting used to the idea of living without getting free, single-use grocery bags at the supermarket checkout, Secretary of State Alex Padilla recently announced that a referendum effort aimed at rescinding the plastic bag ban signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September had qualified for the 2016 ballot. Pending the results of next year’s vote, the announcement effectively suspends the July 1 implementation of the measure, Senate Bill 270, which would have been the first statewide bag ban in the nation. (Citywide bans, such as those passed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, will remain in place.)

Padilla’s office says that a random sampling found that the measure’s supporters collected at least 555,236 valid signatures—more than the 504,706 needed. Ironically, Padilla had been a key force behind the passage of SB 270, when he was in the State Senate.

Californians currently use about 11 billion disposable plastic shopping bags annually with a market value that the plastic bag industry estimates at between $100 million to $150 million. Those sales will now be secure for an additional 15 months.

The effort to put the so-called “people’s veto” onto the ballot was mounted by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the same industry consortium that bitterly fought passage of the ban.

The verbal battle lines for the upcoming fight have been quickly drawn.

Californians currently use about 11 billion disposable plastic shopping bags annually with a market value that the plastic bag industry estimates at between $100 million to $150 million.

In a prepared statement, bag alliance executive director Lee Califf declared that “California voters will now have the chance to vote down a terrible law that, if implemented, would kill 2,000 local manufacturing jobs and funnel obscene profits to big grocers without any money going to a public purpose or environmental initiative.”

Mark Murray of Californians vs. Big Plastic, the coalition of environmental, labor and business groups that supports the ban, countered with his own statement.

“It’s not surprising that after spending more than $3.2 million, 98 percent of which is from out of state, the plastic bag industry has bought its way onto the California ballot to protect its profits,” Murray says. “Every poll shows that Californians strongly support the law, and the $30 million to $50 million it will cost the plastics industry to launch a full-fledged campaign in 2016 will be proven to be an act of political malpractice, particularly since nearly half the state will no longer have plastic bags by election day.”

Murray pointed out that the state’s 138 cities and counties that have already banned the bags are home to 37 percent of Californians. And he says he expects ban ordinances that have been introduced in such cities as San Diego and Sacramento to move forward while SB 270 is on hold.

One of the environmental groups instrumental in the passage of SB 270 was Santa Monica’s Heal the Bay. Its vice president, Sarah Sikich, told Capital & Main that the referendum comes as no surprise.

“Even in the last days of session,” she says, “when the bill was looking like it was going to move to the governor’s desk, we started to hear from the plastics industry that they would likely pursue a referendum if the governor did in fact sign the bill.”

And while Sikich is expecting a fierce fight by the pro-bag alliance and acknowledges that the group has been successful at the ballot box in other states, she insists that California has momentum and history on its side.

“I think the great thing about the plastic pollution issue is that there’s just this huge groundswell of grassroots support,” Sikich says. “SB 270’s enactment was very celebrated, and we’ve got a lot of the newspapers—the leading newspapers—on our side. So I think this is an issue that people feel and see and experience in their pocketbooks and their own communities. It’s something they feel passionate about it.”

The use of the ballot referendum is relatively rare in California. Since 2000 there have only been 10 such measures put before state voters, and five of those dealt with Indian gaming legislation.

According to Dean Bonner, associate survey director for the Public Policy Institute of California’s Statewide Survey, such thin data—especially on measures designed to benefit a single industry—make calling the bag manufacturers chances of prevailing difficult.

Rather, Bonner told Capital & Main, a better comparison would be the fate of Proposition 23 in 2010, when voters soundly rejected an attempt by oil companies to suspend Assembly Bill 32, California’s widely acclaimed cap-and-trade law designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“Almost 62 percent voted no on that,” Bonner says. “And I think in California, as we find in many of our surveys, voters are very supportive of a lot of measures that have to do with the environment.”

For the plastic bag industry, however, there’s a lot at stake. Where California goes, the conventional wisdom has it, so follows the nation, particularly when it comes to the environment.

The signing of the California ban clearly had industry leaders rattled, particularly in Texas, where Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Phillips Chemical, Formosa Plastics Corp., and Dow Chemical all have announced plans to take advantage of the cheap natural gas liquids from the fracking boom by building the multibillion-dollar ethane crackers used to make ethylene, a key component in plastic bags.

Even if the California ban withstands the challenge and the domestic retail bag market in the United States is lost, an industry analyst observed, the resin industry would survive. There’s always the overseas market in places like Asia, where, he says, an expanding middle class is hungry for plastic packaging of all kinds.

This post originally appeared on Capital & Main, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “State Referendum Freezes Plastic Bag Ban."