Reed Saxon / The Associated Press

State Sens. Alex Padilla, left, and Kevin De León greet workers at a plastics recycling plant in Vernon before a news conference in January to announce progress toward a statewide ban on carry-out plastic bags at many stores.

Ban it! From bags to butts, California bills would nix range of products

Published: Sunday, Mar. 30, 2014 - 9:19 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 - 5:21 am

Extinguish your filtered cigarettes, ditch the plastic bags to carry your groceries, toss your micro-beaded facial scrub and cancel those plans to catch an orca show at SeaWorld.

Each of those things would be prohibited under a package of bills circulating in Sacramento. Seeking to address such issues as pollution, animal cruelty and tobacco use, lawmakers have advanced measures to ban or limit the availability of various consumer products and activities.

The items facing potential prohibition join a growing list of products legislators have banned in recent years, like lead ammunition, foie gras, eggs from tightly caged chickens and edible shark fins. Those bills drew protests from specific groups saying they were being unfairly penalized – hunters decrying the loss of lead bullets, Chinese Americans who eat shark fin soup mourning the loss of a cherished tradition.

Taken together, critics say, sweeping statewide bans are prime examples of unmerited government interference.

“I think the solution to a lot of our issues is to allow local governments to make those decisions, because the problem we have with California’s government is it’s a ‘one size fits all’ mentality,” said Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville.

Advocates of ban bills counter that a statewide approach is justified on issues that affect all Californians, like environmental degradation. They say a consistent standard is often preferable to an array of contradictory local rules. The state grocers association, for instance, has said legislation eliminating single-use plastic bags would free businesses from navigating scores of municipal bag ordinances.

“You have some large jurisdictions that have the bans, and then across the street it could be another city or county which does not, which provides confusion to the customers and creates a competitive disadvantage to businesses,” said Ronald Fong, president and CEO of the California Grocers Association. “Since the localities are going there anyway and the numbers are growing, let’s go ahead and do a statewide ban that is uniform for everybody.”

In championing a ban on plastic bags, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, has become the latest standard bearer for a recurring Sacramento campaign. His bag ban was revived earlier this year after a pair of senators who helped bury the measure in 2013 reversed to support the policy, enticed by grant money to help offset job losses at plastic-bag factories.

Others float novel approaches to old issues. An anti-litter bill by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, would ban cigarette filters in an effort to stub out the cigarette butts littering beaches and clogging waterways, while an ocean cleanup bill by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would nix the “microbeads” embedded in cosmetic products like facial scrubs. Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, hopes to curb underage smoking by banning online tobacco purchases.

Another bill by Bloom responds specifically to a more recent development: the incendiary documentary “Blackfish,” which strongly suggests that inhumane orca management practices at SeaWorld fueled the deaths of trainers. Bloom says his legislation, which would end orca shows and captive orca breeding in California, is justified given the high intelligence and social sophistication of the species that produced the iconic Shamu.

“We have to recognize today that science has advanced, that our understanding of mammals has advanced,” Bloom said.

A more comprehensive prohibition list would include efforts in the Legislature to bar disputed legal strategies, like the so-called “affluenza” and “gay panic” defenses; to place a moratorium on the gas-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking; and to banish fundraising tools, such as events at the homes of lobbyists, seen as insidious sources of influence by special interests.

But none of those directly mold the choices consumers have before them like a simple ban on a given product – or, in SeaWorld’s case, an experience. Skeptics say state-encompassing product bans can be blunt instruments that create more problems than they solve.

For a prohibition to be worthwhile, said Carson Bruno of the free-market-oriented Hoover Institution, the risk of doing nothing must be clearly greater than the effects of regulation. The cost of outlawing nuclear waste leakage, for example, is justified if you think about what might happen if radiation seeped out of a nuclear plant.

As a counterexample, Bruno cites the plastic-bag ban, which he has studied. In addition to squelching jobs, he said, the ban would leave U.S. refineries with a surplus of the oil byproduct often used to make plastic bags, setting off a cascade of new questions and policy decisions around what to do with that waste.

“If the unintended consequences outweigh the initial problem, then it’s not a good use of public policy,” said Bruno.

Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has applied that calculus to proposals to ban single-use plastic bags. While some California cities have already moved to phase out plastic bags, swayed by arguments about the volume of waste the bags generate, proposals for a statewide prohibition haven’t gained traction in Sacramento. Last year, de León’s no vote helped kill a ban bill.

But now de León says he is on board. Before, the tradeoff was not worth it: The repercussions, measured in the loss of jobs at a plastic-bag factory in de León’s district, did not justify the environmental benefits, he said. A compromise allocating money to retrain plant employees and shift production into reusable bags tilted the balance, de León said.

“You can promote the environment, you can have a greener economy and you can preserve jobs,” de León said.

In some cases, it can make more sense to ban a product if a viable substitute already exists. When he carried a successful bill to bar hunters from using lead ammunition, Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, faced a backlash from critics who saw “an attempt to shut down hunting,” Rendon said. He and proponents of the bill emphasized the availability of alternatives like copper-based bullets.

“To show there are cost-effective methods for hunters to continue to pursue their sport was a way of counteracting (critics) and continuing to allow hunters to do their sports,” Rendon said.

Few people would argue society must provide an alternative to cigarettes. Stone’s bill focuses not on preventing smoking but on curbing the environmental consequences. In addition to the well-documented health hazards of smoking, cigarette butts consistently turn up as the single most pervasive form of plastic waste along California’s coast.

Other strategies aren’t working, Stone said. Policymakers have already tried to nudge people away from discarding their butts in nature, but hefty fines of up to $1,000 have done little to dissuade smokers from littering. Instituting a cigarette recycling program, or making tobacco companies take more responsibility for the fate of the butts themselves, aren’t very plausible options.

“It’s easy to jump to a ban,” Stone said. “Sometimes it’s not the best answer. Sometimes it’s all we can do.”

Bloom said he will listen to the cosmetics industry about its concerns around phasing out microbeads, the tiny plastic spheres in some facial scrubs and toothpastes. Across the country, environmental advocates and scientists are warning that microbeads slip through filtration systems and accumulate in lakes and the ocean, where they endure without biodegrading and are often ingested by fish.

The Santa Monica Democrat drew a distinction between microbeads and waste generated by essential products. He pointed out that policymakers continue to grapple with the amount of discarded pharmaceutical drugs that permeate waterways . But that wouldn’t merit banning those products.

Microbeads are a different story, he said.

“These are cosmetics,” Bloom said. “We lived without microbeads before they went into the products, and we can live without them afterwards.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White

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