California plastic bag ban likely on hold
Recycling and Environmental issues
BY MARTIN WISCKOL
Plastic bag manufacturers stand to sell 9 billion additional plastic bags simply by gathering enough signatures for a ballot measure to repeal the state’s plastic bag ban, which is scheduled to take effect July 1.
Bag makers say they’ll finish submitting the necessary signatures by Monday’s deadline, which would land the referendum on the November 2016 ballot. Once a referendum qualifies, the law it seeks to overturn cannot take effect until after voters have their say, according to state law.
That means that manufacturers would have an additional 16 months to sell plastic bags in the state, even if their referendum fails. That amounts to $145 million worth of bags that would otherwise be banned, according to calculations by the pro-ban Californians Against Waste.
“Big plastic stands to benefit whether or not the referendum passes, while Californians are left with more plastic in the ocean,” said Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, another group backing the bag ban.
Nelsen points to polling strongly supporting the ban – including an October USC Dornsife poll showing that 59 percent of voters favor it – as evidence that the referendum will likely fail, and said plastic bag makers simply want to delay the inevitable.
But manufacturers counter that the ban – which would require customers wanting bags to either use reusable sacks or buy paper ones for 10 cents each – is a ploy by grocery stores to make more money. They say voters have a right to have the final word on a bill approved by the state Legislature.
“We’re not doing this so we can sell bags for another 16 months,” said Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Plastic Bag Alliance. “When consumers understand that this is a cash grab by the grocers, they oppose this horrible legislation.”
Daniels cited internal APBA polling, which he says shows that voter sentiment shifts in the group’s favor when poll respondents are told that grocers will make millions from selling paper bags.
Ron Fong, president of the California Grocers Association, says the group’s support for the measure stems from a desire to have a uniform law throughout the state rather than a patchwork of local ordinances.
Backers of the statewide plastic bag ban say it’s needed to reduce litter and protect marine life. Those arguments have been key in persuading 138 California cities and counties – accounting for 36 percent of the state’s population – to approve similar bans now in effect.
But the bag industry says its product’s role in litter and sea pollution is greatly overstated. Industry representatives punch holes in key statistics cited by ban proponents, who in turn offer evidence that the bag industry’s data is flawed.
Scrutiny of the data from both sides, though, can help bring the picture into focus – as well as reveal the manipulation of statistics:
• Bag reuse. California vs. Big Plastic, the environmental coalition behind the statewide ban effort, cites an EPA study as evidence that 88 percent of plastic bags are used only once. But what the study actually says is that 88 percent are not recycled – a statistic APBA says doesn’t account for the all the bags that end up in the landfill after being reused as garbage sacks and dog poop bags.
“They used the wrong category to create an emotional appeal for banning bags,” said Phil Rozenski, director of marketing and sustainability for Novolex. Novolex is the parent company of Hilex Poly, the nation’s largest plastic bag manufacturer.
APBA points to a 2007 poll it commissioned of 502 people, in which 92 percent said they reused plastic bags. Ban proponents said the reuse rate is nowhere near that high, pointing out that the question was, “Do you or does anyone in your household ever reuse plastic shopping bags?”
“That is far different from ‘How many bags actually get reused?’” said Steven Maviglio, campaign manager for California vs. Big Plastic.
• Shoreline litter. Maviglio cites a 2008 Coastal Commission report that says 13.5 percent of shoreline litter is plastic bags and a 25-year Coastal Commission survey that shows plastic bags are the most common beach trash item after cigarette butts.
Rozenski countered with an Ocean Conservancy study that found that plastic bags accounted for 1.7 percent of beach trash collected in California. The Ocean Conservancy had cigarette butts topping the list, followed by food wrappers, bottle caps, straws and stirrers, and plastic bottles. Plastic grocery sacks are sixth on the list.