Politics & Government

Plastics industry spends big to reverse California’s bag ban

A woman walks with a plastic bag in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, May 14, 2014.
A woman walks with a plastic bag in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. AP

The clash over California’s newly passed ban on single-use plastic bags has moved from the Legislature to the streets as the national plastics industry has donated more than $1 million for a campaign to undo or delay the law.

Moments after Gov. Jerry Brown announced signing Senate Bill 270 in September, a plastic industry group that vociferously fought the legislation declared its intention to launch a referendum campaign. If proponents secure enough signatures by the end of December, the measure would be placed on the 2016 ballot, suspending the law’s implementation until then.

Money has begun pouring in. A new filing shows plastics companies contributing $1.2 million toward the referendum campaign. All but $50,000 came from companies based outside of California, illustrating the fight’s national dimensions.

Even if the referendum ultimately fails, bag manufacturers would buy themselves a significant reprieve if the signature-gathering campaign succeeds. Large stores are poised to cease offering plastic bags by this summer, with smaller stores to follow by July 2016. Qualifying a referendum that pushes those dates back until after the November 2016 election could be worth a multimillion-dollar price tag of collecting signatures.

According to projections compiled by proponents of eliminating single-use bags, the bags distributed in California in 2012 carried a wholesale value of $195 million. Californians use about 14 billion disposable plastic bags a year, according to a legislative analysis of Senate Bill 270.

More than California’s vast market could be at stake. In part because of its size, California is often seen as an incubator of policy ideas that can then ripple outward. If a bag ban is successfully implemented here, the theory goes, other states could follow.

“I believe that this referendum has nothing to do with what’s best for California,” said Mark Murray, whose group Californians Against Waste championed the ban. “It has everything to do with sending a signal across the country that the issue has not yet been resolved – not because they’re trying to save plastic bags in California, but because they’re trying to prevent other states from adopting the ban.”

After California’s law passed, a state lawmaker in New York announced he would be crafting legislation to enact a statewide ban. Queens Assemblyman Michael DenDekker’s legislation differs from California’s law – it would not levy a fee on paper bags available at supermarkets, as California’s law would – but DenDekker said he was similarly motivated to try to reduce the mountains of waste plastic bags generate, echoing a key argument for California’s law.

“Do we look at California? Definitely,” DenDekker said in an interview. “We look at everyone’s laws. That’s the way to learn.”

Opposite the plastics industry stand California’s grocery stores. The statewide grocers association endorsed SB 270, calling a single standard preferable to the array of varying local bans that have proliferated across the state. It is poised to spend money on preventing the referendum from qualifying.

“I would characterize it as a significant contribution,” California Grocers Association lobbyist Keri Askew Bailey said of the potential for a donation.

If the referendum lands on the ballot, Askew Bailey said, “it really puts us in a significantly challenging position in that we feel this local patchwork that has spread throughout California potentially could expand, and that patchwork is the entire reason our association sought a statewide solution. It has just become too cumbersome and confusing.”

The countereffort also will entail instructing grocery stores of their right to restrict the signature-gatherers who often do a brisk business outside of stores, Askew Bailey said. Even if the referendum qualifies advocates plan to encourage grocery stores to still move ahead with phasing out bags.

“If they throw enough money at it, there’s a good chance they will get the signatures and they will get this thing on the ballot,” Murray said. “If that happens, we are going to be moving aggressively with implementation.”

Grocery stores are motivated by the profits they will reap from the law, said Mark Daniels of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which led the lobbying effort against the bill. Stores will be able to charge at least 10 cents per bag for paper or durable plastic bags at checkout. Critics decried the charge as a windfall for grocers.

“This bill has never been about the environment. This is a behind-the-scenes deal between big labor and the grocers to scam California out of billions of dollars,” Daniels said, adding that the money plastic bag manufacturers stand to lose is “not anywhere near the financial benefit that the grocers are going to make.”

Signature gatherers must move fast. They must amass just over 500,000 valid signatures by Dec. 29, or 90 days after Brown signed the bill. With such a tight deadline, the fate of referendums can be skewed by factors like whether there are other initiatives competing to employ signature gatherers. In California, the bag ban referendum is the only measure in the signature-gathering phase.

“It’s more logistical than anything,” said Fred Kimball, a consultant who has run numerous petition drives. “It’s very dependent upon what the current market or the situation is out in the field.”

Ban backers say they are confident the policy would survive a public vote, brandishing polling suggesting an easy adjustment for residents of cities and counties that have phased out single-use bags.

But that may not be a decisive factor until 2016. First comes the petition drive. Often, Kimball said, signature gatherers will emphasize the need for a public vote over the substance of the policy itself.

“On something like this, it’s being sold as ‘we’ve got a problem here – some people want it, some people don’t want it. Let’s let the state vote on it,’” Kimball said.

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

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