Dan Morain

Bagmen try cynical new ploy

A 2014 photo shows a pile of trash alongside the Los Angeles River in Long Beach. Plastic bags are a common sight in such trash, and in oceans and waterways.
A 2014 photo shows a pile of trash alongside the Los Angeles River in Long Beach. Plastic bags are a common sight in such trash, and in oceans and waterways. Orange County Register file

Judging from its name and purported purpose, the newly proposed Environmental Fee Protection Act seems an environmentalist’s dream.

The initiative pledges to take $400 million a year from “special interests” and dedicate it to “worthy environmental objectives like drought mitigation, recycling, clean drinking water supplies, parks, beach cleanup, litter removal, and wildlife habitat restoration.”

This act must be the work of earnest environmentalists or a rich philanthropist, right? Yeah, right.

The people preparing to pay $4 million or so to place the Environmental Fee Protection Act on the 2016 ballot are the same ones whose products despoil our countryside and clog the digestive tracts of sea turtles and whales.

The Environmental Fee Protection Act comes to us from the minds of Novolex, formerly known as Hilex Poly, the company that led the $3.1 million lobbying battle against California’s legislation to ban plastic grocery bags.

Novolex, based in South Carolina, is the nation’s largest plastic bag maker, and is owned by Wind Point Partners, a Chicago private equity firm. They care deeply about California beaches and parks, I’m sure.

The 2014 legislation banning plastic bags had flaws. Carried by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, then a state senator, the bill seeks to allow grocers to charge customers a dime for paper bags and pocket the money. That compromise helped buy grocers’ support.

Seeking to block the legislation from taking effect, the plastic bagmen spent $3.3 million on a successful petition drive to place a referendum on the 2016 ballot. That’s Step 1.

Heading off the law was only half the strategy, though. That became apparent on Friday when the bagmen took Step 2 by submitting the separate initiative, the Environmental Fee Protection Act.

This gets complicated. But say voters reject the referendum and thus uphold the bag ban. Then, say, they approve the nice, green-seeming initiative. If that were to happen, grocers no longer would collect proceeds from the sale of paper bags. Instead, that money would go toward various environmental programs.

So would grocers spend money in what surely would be a multimillion-dollar campaign to maintain the plastic bag ban, if there’s a chance they could end up losing their sweet deal on the sale of paper bags? California Grocers Association executives wouldn’t discuss it when I asked.

“I think a lot of environmentalists would be inclined to vote for this,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, which backs the plastic bag ban. “I might even vote for it.”

Murray also called the maneuver what it is, cynical. “There is no sincere spin you can put on this.”

By aiming the initiative at grocers, bag makers are attacking a prime customer. That might not seem like shrewd business. But the effort also contains an element of payback. Grocers did, after all, break from the bag makers when they embraced the statewide ban, in response to the scores of cities that adopted ordinances prohibiting plastic bags.

Rather than adapt, the industry fights, as Andy Keller learned.

A decade ago, having been laid off from a software company, Keller founded ChicoBag, a company in Chico that sells reusable bags made from recycled material. Hilex Poly sued ChicoBag in federal court in South Carolina, claiming the California startup made false claims about plastic bags.

“I’m a small business and they’re a multimillion-dollar corporation, and I had to defend myself in South Carolina,” Keller said. “They could take everything I own.”

As part of a settlement, ChicoBags agreed to alter claims on its website, though Keller’s company still attacks the “Bag Monster.”

Depending on how the initiative is interpreted, the industry might not be done with ChicoBag. The initiative refers to revenue from the sale of “carryout bags” and it gives a broad definition:

“ ‘Carryout bag’ means single use carryout bags, paper bags, recycled paper bags, plastic bags, recyclable plastic bags, reusable plastic bags, compostable bags, reusable grocery bags, or any other kind of bags used to carry purchased items away from a store.”

A consultant for the plastic bag industry said the definition wouldn’t apply to ChicoBag products. Perhaps he’s right. Or maybe someone will sue, and a court will be left to sort out the definition, as often happens with initiatives.

Of all the disposable items in our first-world lives, flimsy plastic grocery bags never struck me as the most conspicuously wasteful. But I don’t like bullies or cynical politics, and so take a dim view of the Environmental Fee Protection Act. And I will be sure to bring reusable bags the next time I go to the store.