Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown foreshadowed the beginning of the end for plastic bags in California.
“We’re the first to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last,” Brown wrote as he signed Senate Bill 270, outlawing single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and other retail establishments in California.
Looking back, he may have spoken too soon.
Almost immediately after Brown signed the bill, plastic companies launched a campaign to overturn the law through a referendum on the 2016 general election ballot. The referendum automatically halted the law from taking effect in July 2015, pushing it off until voters weigh in at the polls in November.
The plastic bag industry, calling itself the American Progressive Bag Alliance, has raised $6.1 million to fight the statewide ban in California, one of several battlefronts in a war pitting environmentalists against plastic manufacturers across the country.
“They are desperately trying to protect the profits they make from selling plastic bags, and they are very concerned about the 10 billion bags that are sold in California,” said Mark Murray, a proponent of the bag ban and executive director of Californians Against Waste. “Certainly if it passes in California, there are a number of states that would embrace the policy.”
Under SB 270, grocers must charge customers at least 10 cents to buy a recycled paper bag or reusable grocery bag. The law requires stores to use the money to cover the costs of providing the alternative bags or of materials that encourage consumers to use reusable bags. The plastic bag industry describes the 10-cent charge as a “hidden tax increase on California consumers.”
Since October 2014, out-of-state bag corporations Advance Polybag Inc., Formosa Plastics Corp., Superbag Corp. and Hilex Poly Co. have given at least $1 million each to convince voters that the law is a “special interest sweetheart deal.” Hilex Poly of South Carolina, which has given $2.8 million, is the single largest donor to the campaign.
Those who want to ban bags have far less money. Five committees funding the Yes on 67 campaign have raised $1.5 million.
But they are counting on the fact that many Californians are already adjusting to living without plastic grocery bags. More than 150 California towns and counties have bag ban ordinances, a number that has grown in 2016. A statewide ban would apply only to communities without local bag bans, and many voters are already changing their habits.
A survey conducted by the city of San Jose a year after it enacted a bag ban in 2012 determined that use of reusable bags at grocery stores climbed from 3.6 percent of all bags before the ban to 62.4 percent. Shoppers were also more inclined to carry their groceries than pay for a paper bag. Roughly 19 percent of shoppers went bag-free before the ban, which shot up to 43 percent post-ban.
The industry has aggressively fought for its survival.
Over the years, plastic bag executives and companies, often calling themselves the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, have filed at least a dozen lawsuits against San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach and other California cities or counties that ban plastic bags. At least two cases traveled as far as the state Supreme Court, which declined petitions to review appeals court rulings on ordinances in Marin and San Francisco after judges ruled in favor of the communities.
In other states, Republican-controlled legislatures have adopted laws that outlaw plastic bag bans at the local level.
In 2015, Arizona lawmakers passed a law that prevents local governments from enacting regulations regarding containers. Mike Pence, governor of Indiana and Republican vice presidential nominee, signed a similar bill preventing cities and counties from limiting or taxing plastic bag use earlier this year. Wisconsin and Idaho passed similar laws.
The bag alliance supported the bills in Wisconsin, Indiana and Idaho, said Phil Rozenski, senior director of sustainability at Novolex and policy chair for the group. He said bans on bag bans often stem from a legislature’s desire to create uniform policies for an entire state instead of allowing a patchwork of laws in each town.
The plastic bag industry argues that the California ban lines the pockets of retailers and risks state manufacturing jobs. Census data show the industry, which is based in Southern California, employed 1,799 people in 2012, down from 3,428 people 10 years earlier.
“Any product that is banned is going to go away, and if it goes away you’re not going to keep manufacturing,” Rozenski said.
Little money to oppose the ban has come from within the state. Six California companies have contributed $71,000 total to the anti-ban campaign, according to state filings.
Proponents point out that while the industry laments that “not one penny” of the bag fee will go to environmental causes, it manufactures and sells a product that poses a danger to wildlife and pollutes the environment. The San Jose study found “a reduction in bag litter of approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city streets and neighborhoods” compared to surveys conducted before the ban took effect.
Murray said he feels confident that voters will uphold the bag ban at the polls.
“We’re continuing to play this to win,” Murray said. “It was frustrating that the referendum postponed implementation. That said, it’s fantastic that we will have an opportunity for California voters to affirm the bag ban.”
Even if the plastic bag industry loses the referendum, it has a backup plan.
The companies funding Proposition 67 also paid to qualify a sister measure on the ballot that redirects the money grocers collect from bag sales to an environmental fund.
The grocers supporting the bag ban said the plastic bag industry dreamed up Proposition 65 as a threat, hoping it would give them enough leverage over retailers to strike a deal on the ban. Some suggest it’s an attempt by the plastic bag industry to punish grocers for backing SB 270, while sending a message to other states that may consider similar bans.
Grocers argue that proceeds from bag sales often aren’t enough to cover the cost of supplying the bags. The fee won’t actually help the environment because it will shrink over time as people bring their own bags to the store, they say. Proponents also fear that voters will confuse the two plastic bag measures on the ballot.
A “yes” vote on Proposition 65 directs the bag money away from grocers to an environmental fund, while a “yes” vote on Proposition 67 upholds the state bag ban.
A University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll from late 2014 found that 6 in 10 registered voters intended to uphold the bag ban at the time. The poll did not ask voters about Proposition 65, but the bag alliance did.
A poll paid for by the American Plastic Bag Alliance found that 57 percent of voters plan to vote “yes” on Proposition 65, which could mark a coup for the industry. If the measures passes, the grocers who supported the ban would end up losing money on it in the end.
Bag manufacturers say their primary objective is to let voters decide where the money should go.
“This is about taking money from the public and giving it to corporate profits,” Rozenski said. “That is being done at the expense of our industry, and we want the public to have a say in it.”