The plastics industry has done it again. They've spent millions of dollars to stop environmental progress in California. This time, they've blocked the plastic bag phaseout that is already state law (SB 270).
For the better part of a decade, California's environmental champions have worked on reducing the waste from plastic grocery bags meant for one-time use. These bags have a significant negative impact on our oceans, coast, and wildlife, and the state incurs a massive cost cleaning them up. CLCV scored bills in 2008, 2010, 2013, and 2014 that would limit or prohibit plastic bags from being distributed at stores. All along the way, industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council and out-of-state manufacturers of plastic bags like Hilex Poly spent millions and millions of dollars lobbying to defeat these bills.
The efforts to kill these bills were successful until 2014, when Senators Alex Padilla, Kevin de León, and Ricardo Lara assembled a winning coalition behind SB 270, including the California Grocers Association. SB 270 was signed into law and would ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags in grocery stores beginning July 1st, 2015, with convenience stores and pharmacies following suit a year later.
In an unfortunate and bizarre turnabout, however, now-California Secretary of State Padilla had to certify signatures gathered by the plastic bag industry that will force a referendum in November 2016 on his own plastic bag ban. The referendum qualifying for the ballot means that enforcement of the new law is now on hold until after the November 2016 election, regardless of the outcome.
“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,” said Mark Murray of the environmental coalition Californians vs. Big Plastic. “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. We are confident that Californians will protect a law that is already in place in 138 communities that will save marine wildlife, reduce litter, and save taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Indeed, local communities continue to be free to enforce their own bag bans and even to pass new ones; for example, the San Diego city council will be considering one in the near future.
CLCV and the rest of the state's environmental community now have a long fight on our hands. We can't match the deep pockets of the plastic industry, but we can more than make up for it with long-term strategy, grassroots organizing, and the proven commitment of our tens of thousands of CLCV members around the state. Consider becoming a monthly contributor to CLCV — our members will make a tremendous difference in this long-haul campaign.
Here's what several leaders of California's environmental community have to say:
Sarah Rose of the California League of Conservation Voters: "Out-of-state plastic bag companies may have millions of dollars to buy their way onto the ballot, but they're just delaying California's inevitable transition away from wasteful plastic bags. Time and time again Californians have shown big polluters that citizen voices are more powerful than those special interests, and we'll do it again. Two words for plastic bag manufacturers: Game on."
Kathryn Phillips, Director of Sierra Club California: "It's a shame that deceptive tactics in collecting signatures allowed this referendum to qualify. Fortunately, Californians are smart voters. Once they understand the real intent of this measure, they'll vote with the environment. They'll vote 'yes' to retain the reasonable statewide bag ban."
Dan Jacobson of Environment California: "Out-of-state polluters are going to keep on dumping millions of pounds of plastic into our ocean. Nothing we use for five minutes should pollute our environment for hundreds of years."
Linda Escalante, Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council: “This is nothing more than a greedy attempt by out of state plastic bag makers to mislead California’s voters for their own gain. Single use plastic bags litter our neighborhoods and harm our rivers, lakes, coast, ocean, and wildlife — and there is broad support for the new law to phase them out for good.”
Surfrider Legal Director Angela Howe: "Surfrider Foundation has been working tirelessly over the past seven years in communities and at the statewide level to address the issue of plastic pollution. It’s disturbing to think that the plastics companies can swoop in and undo a major statewide victory for our coasts, but rest assured that Surfrider and our coalition partners will continue to fight for this ground-breaking environmental law to come to fruition in California.”
The Los Angeles Times editorialized in favor of the bag ban yesterday, stating, "If Californians can't manage to ban single-use plastic bags — taking on the industry that manufactures them and accepting the minor inconvenience involved — it doesn't speak well of the state's ability to confront the bigger environmental challenges that lie ahead... In future months, voters can expect an onslaught of advertising aimed at persuading them that the plastic-bag ban is a tax — which it's not — and that the industry would face massive job losses without the bags. It won't."
Time and time again, Californians have shown big polluters that citizen voices are more powerful than special interests. Keep watching this space for more on this topic — and your contribution as a sustaining member of CLCV can help make a real difference.