[CN] – While plastic bag manufacturers bill Proposition 67 as a simple referendum on a 2014 California law banning stores from giving customers plastic bags at checkout, some are calling the ballot initiative a ploy by the industry to slow the momentum of similar bans across the nation.
After Gov. Jerry Brown signed off on the statewide ban two years ago, the plastic industry blocked its implementation by putting it to a popular vote through Proposition 67. A “yes” vote on the measure would uphold the bag ban; a “no” vote would repeal it.
Although the statewide ban has been shelved until after Election Day, about 150 cities and counties around the state encompassing 40 percent of the population have enacted their own bans on single-use plastic bags. Californians seem to favor an all-out ban, with polls predicting the measure passing by a comfortable margin.
If it does fail and the statewide ban is repealed, local bans will remain in place.
According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, Americans used 102 billion plastic bags in 2008. Backers of Proposition 67 say many of those bags end up in the water, where animals get tangled in them or eat them and die. Researchers estimate that 90 percent of the world’s seabirds and 50 percent of its sea turtles have eaten plastic bags.
Proponents says bag bans reduce the number of bags that get into the water. According to a report issued by the city of San Jose, the number of bags found in creeks fell by 76 percent and by 69 percent in storm drains after the city outlawed single-use plastic bags in 2012.
“Bag bans work,” ocean conservation group Surfrider Foundation told Courthouse News in an email.
But the plastics industry sees a more sinister narrative at play, contending that the 2014 statewide ban’s requirement that stores also charge 10 cents for a paper bag or a reusable plastic bag is a “sweetheart deal” that will funnel $300 million into grocers’ pockets as a reward for donating large sums of money to Sacramento politicians. The industry wants that money to be put into a state-administered environmental fund for beach cleanup and litter removal projects instead.
“It’s an enormous special-interest payoff to grocers,” said Jon Berrier, a spokesman for the plastic industry’s trade group American Progressive Bag Alliance. “No matter how you feel about plastic bag bans, we wanted people to focus in on what is the most egregious part of this bill. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being reaped off bag fees by grocers, and consumers want those fees to go to a public purpose.”
That’s where Proposition 65 comes in. A companion measure to Proposition 67, this measure would redirect the 10-cent bag fee stores get to an environmental fund administered by the California Wildlife Conservation Board if the bag ban is upheld.
Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for the Yes on 67 campaign, disagreed with the No camp’s assessment.
“This is not a profit-making enterprise,” he said. “Otherwise, grocers would have been supportive of these bans from day one at the local level.”
Grocers threw their support behind the state ban after a proliferation of local bans began causing logistical problems for the industry.
“It came to a point where it made more sense” to have a uniform policy, Maviglio said.
The 10-cent fee, he said, was meant to help grocers recoup their losses on paper bags, which can cost them between 6 and 16 cents.
Maviglio believes the plastic industry put the statewide ban to a vote to punish California grocers for supporting it, in the hope that grocers in other states won’t back similar ones. The industry has been working to outlaw bans across the nation, suing towns in Texas that have passed bans and lobbying politicians in Arizona, Idaho and Missouri to pass laws prohibiting plastic bag bans, he said.
“It’s very clear they wanted to punish the grocers for supporting the bag ban because it’s going on in a number of states and communities,” Maviglio said of the four out-of-state plastics companies behind the dual initiatives.
Those companies have given the American Progressive Bag Alliance $6 million to fight Proposition 67, accounting for 97 percent of the group’s contributions, according to campaign financing tracker MapLight.
Despite Proposition 65 earmarking bag fee revenue for environmental projects, the Surfrider Foundation expressed doubts about the motivation of the plastic industry in sponsoring it.
“Prop. 65 claims to support the environment – by directing an insignificant amount of revenue from the purchases of paper bags to a new state environmental fund,” the foundation said in its email. “It’s actually an attempt by the plastic bag industry to distract from Prop. 67, which by law appears at the end of the ballot.”
But the plastic industry says bag bans don’t reduce the amount of plastic floating in the ocean. Plastic bags make up less than one percent of all litter, with the majority of marine litter comprised of fishing line and gear, according to its spokesman Berrier.
And while the Surfrider Foundation estimates that less than 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled, Berrier said Americans recycle 15 percent of their single-use plastic bags, preventing them from ever becoming litter.
“The idea that banning this particular product is going to have a meaningful reduction of litter going into our waterways is just false,” Berrier said.
Contrary to the plastic industry’s assertion, however, up to 80 percent of marine litter is comprised of plastic, according to a 2002 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. And a World Economic Forum report released earlier this year estimates there are over 150 million tons of plastic in the ocean right now, and said if plastic bag practices don’t change there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
“This is a trend that we can’t ignore,” the Surfrider Foundation said. “We need this legislation to protect wildlife.”
Those numbers are resonating with Californians. An October poll conducted by the Institute for Social Research at Sacramento State University found that 45 percent of likely voters favor Proposition 67, while 39 percent oppose it and 16 percent remain undecided.
And in what might be a sign that single-use plastic bags could soon be history, Novolex, South Carolina’s plastic bag behemoth and Proposition 67’s largest funder, bought a paper bag manufacturer in 2014 to deflect a downgrade of its credit rating by Moody’s for remaining ensconced in the “low-growth” plastic bag market.
“They can read the writing on the wall,” Maviglio said.