The fight over California’s plastic bag ban

California passed the nation’s first state-wide plastic bag ban, Senate Bill 270, last fall. The law was set to take effect July 2015, banning single-use plastic bags at grocery and retail stores in California and mandating a 10 cent charge for paper bags.

However, the law may be placed on hold until the November 2016 election if a ballot referendum filed by plastic companies is qualified.

The bill was authored by California state senators Alex Padilla, Kevin de Leon and Ricardo Lara. It passed through the state senate in August 2014 before being signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 30.

Photo courtesy: I-5 Design & Manufacture, Flick (CC)

Photo courtesy: I-5 Design & Manufacture, Flickr (CC)

The law would prohibit the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags to customers at stores with a “specified amount of sales in dollars or retail floor space.”

Retailers which qualify under this bill are stores with gross annual sales of $2 million which sell dry groceries, canned goods, or nonfood items and some perishable items or stores with 10,000 square feet of retail space or more that generate sales.

There are various exceptions outlined in the legislation, which include plastic bags used for meat and produce.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a campaign by the Society of the Plastics Industry, has led the charge in qualifying the referendum and effort to repeal SB 270.

The alliance gathered and submitted more than 800,000 signatures from California voters in December. The signatures are currently being processed and verified through the Secretary of State’s office, where Padilla was recently elected in the fall midterms. Just a little more than 500,000 signatures are needed to qualify a referendum and place the law on next November’s ballot.

The APBA is related to Bag the Ban, a project by plastic and paper bag manufacturer NOVOLEX which developed in response to proposed ordinances and laws banning plastic bags.

The alliance released a statement immediately following Brown’s approval of the bill in September, claiming the law “would jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment, and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets.”

The law will require all money collected from the 10 cent paper bag charge to be retained by the individual stores – a point of controversy for those in opposition to the legislation.

The California Grocers Association has been criticized for their support of SB 270 by websites like Fight the Plastic Bag Ban which claim a uniformed state law enforcing the 10 cent charge on paper bags and ban of plastic bag distribution would be “in their interest.”

CGA Vice President Dave Heylen admits the association did not support the first California city ordinance to pass in San Francisco back in 2007. The ordinance did not mandate any charge on paper bags, rather only banned plastic ones. Heylen attributes the association’s opposition to that first ordinance to the lack of a “disincentive” for consumers.

“We learned in San Francisco that all they did was shift over to paper, which gives you no environmental gain – you’re just shifting one problem to another,” Heylen said.

“The ultimate goal is for consumers to use reusable bags. That makes the most environmental sense,” he said.

For Heylen and the CGA, it also makes the most business sense. More than 135 cities and counties in California have followed San Francisco’s charge to locally ban single-use plastic bags.

The issue, Heylen says, was a lack of continuity from city to city or county to county. Some ordinances mandated a charge for paper bags while others didn’t. Even the ordinances that did mandate a charge varied in price.

“Some of the cities were charging 25 cents, other a dime,” Heylen said. “It makes it difficult to do business. We saw that it made more sense and would bring more continuity to the consumer to have a state-wide law.”

Among the cities with local plastic bag ban ordinances is Pasadena, which does implement the 10 cent charge for paper bags.

The city’s website says the charge on paper bags “allows the affected store to recover the cost of compliance with the ban.” These include providing recyclable paper bags or costs associated with a store’s campaigns to encourage customers to use reusable bags.

According to Pasadena city employee Ursula Schmidt, who had worked on the initiating the project before transferring to the Water and Power Department, said the project involved significant public outreach efforts such as workshops for residents, grocers and restaurants.

“We made sure the proposal would best reflect the needs of the community as a whole,” Schmidt said.

Supporters at Plastic Bag Ban Rally at LA City Hall in May 2012. Photo courtesy: Heal the Bay, Flick (CC)

Participants in Plastic Bag Ban Rally at LA City Hall in May 2012.
Photo courtesy: Heal the Bay, Flickr (CC)

The city had implemented its ordinance in 2012, following Los Angeles County which had implemented its plastic bag ban in the county’s unincorporated areas in 2011.

The county had paid for an environmental impact report in the process of creating its ordinance, which had limited costs for other cities in the county who could use the EIR in efforts to pass their own ordinances.

“LA County was a great resource because they actually did a county EIR which all the cities within the county were able to piggy back off of,” Schmidt said.

According to LA County’s Depart of Public Works website, approximately six billion single-use plastic bags were consumed in the county annually and accounted for as much as 25 percent of the litter stream.

Other Southern California cities followed in LA County’s footsteps.

Huntington Beach adopted its own ordinance in 2013, which also mandated the 10 cent charge for paper bags. At the time, this was an effort to clean up the city’s beaches and reduce pollution and potential harm to marine life.

On Jan. 20, however, the council moved to begin the process of repealing the ban in a 6-1 vote.

The repeal was proposed by newly elected Councilman Mike Posey, who referred to the previous council’s initial ban as an “overreach.”

“Government shouldn’t be in the business of banning any consumer items that don’t pose a public safety issue,” Posey said.

The councilmen said there was a lack of “empirical data” that the bags on the city’s beaches and in the riverbed came from Huntington Beach retailers.

“There’s no substance in banning plastic bags. What Huntington Beach City Council failed to prove–and cannot prove–is the chain of custody in those plastic bags. They say, ‘If we ban plastic bags in Huntington Beach, we’re doing a good thing for the ocean.’ Well Huntington Beach is not an island,” Posey said. “We’re surrounded by cities that still have plastic bags. We’re downstream from cities that have plastic bags all the way up to the mountains.”

The repeal process will begin with an EIR, which is expected to take two to three months to complete. Once returned to the council, the repeal could take effect as early as May.

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Photo courtesy: Kate Ter Haar, Flickr (CC)

According to Californians Against Waste, a non-profit environmental research and advocacy organization, plastic bags contribute somewhere between $34 to $107 million in annual costs for California cities and counties to clean up litter and prevent marine pollution. The total cost for these efforts is estimated at $428 million.

CAW is a primary player in the California vs Big Plastic campaign – a coalition of environmental, business, consumer, labor group and citizens opposing the referendum led by the APBA.

“The goal of the campaign is to protect our environmental laws from out-of-state corporations,” said CAW spokesperson Brian O’Hara. “For people living in those 135 cities that already have a local ban, including LA and San Francisco, nothing really changes. SB 270 represents California’s collective response to the fact that we know dumping billions of plastic bags into our environment every year can’t continue.”

The APBA’s campaign has received more than $3 million in contributions since October 2014. More than $1.7 million of those contributions have been made by Hilex Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer which operates in 12 states. It does not operate in California.

The campaign has received contributions from in-state companies or companies with operations in California, totaling an estimated $80,000. These companies include Crown Poly, Elkay Plastics, Metro Poly and others.

“If there’s two things Californians don’t like, it’s environmental pollution and corporate political manipulation,” O’Hara said. “In the fight between California and big plastics, I’ll put my money on California every time.”

The APBA was contacted for this piece but did not respond to interview requests.

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