In February a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags was put on hold as the industry succeeded in qualified a referendum for the November 2016 ballot. But as more and more local communities have already banned single-use plastic bags, one question is whether the industry is fighting a losing battle, as the proverbial cat may already be out of the bag.
One of the latest cities to join the single-use plastic bag ban is Sacramento, whose ordinance will take effect on Friday. Sacramento joins with a flurry of new communities in 2016 to push the number to 145 communities that have enacted such bans. These bans take effect despite the statewide referendum and will remain on the books regardless of the outcome.
More than a third of Californians live in areas where single-use bags are already banned. A 2014 poll showed “broad support among voters, presenting a challenge for industry groups that hope to overturn the law.”
Sixty percent of the voters who responded to the survey support the ban. More interesting is that the support is broader than current policies. Fifty-two percent of respondents live in a community that has already banned disposable plastic bags and 60 percent support the ban, with just 35 percent in opposition.
The Times poll found that even 52 percent of the people who do not live under local restrictions support the ban.
This figures to be a very tricky landscape for the industry to wage a campaign. First, with more than a third of Californians already under the ban, those individuals will have no stakes at all in the outcome. And while some may oppose the ban on principle, it won’t change their personal situation.
Second, the usual tactics may not work. Broad changes like these see campaigns focusing on scaring the voters out of change – but in places where people already live under the ban, they may not like it, but they have learned to cope with the new reality.
Naturally a campaign will target the areas not under the ban currently, where scare tactics might be more effective – but a strategy that ignores voters in the major metropolitan areas already covered under the ban figures to be a losing strategy.
This week, an article in the Bee quoted Lee Califf, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group. He said earlier this year that “the proposed ordinance in Sacramento wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on the environment” and would enrich grocery chains at the expense of shoppers.
That such a ban would enrich grocery chains seems a questionable claim, and it will be more difficult to make the argument that a ban on plastic bans statewide will not have a meaningful impact on the environment.
“This bill is a step in the right direction – it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself,” said Governor Brown in signing the legislation. “We’re the first to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last.”
“A throw-away society is not sustainable. This new law will greatly reduce the flow of billions of single-use plastic bags that litter our communities and harm our environment each year. Moving from single-use plastic bags to reusable bags is common sense. Governor Brown’s signature reflects our commitment to protect the environment and reduce government costs,” added Senator Alex Padilla, who sponsored the legislation.
Each year, more than 13 billion single-use plastic bags are handed out by retailers. According to CalRecycle, just three percent are actually recycled in California. Plastic bags cause litter, slow sorting and jam machinery at recycling centers.
The combined cost of single-use plastic bags to California consumers and state and local government for use, clean-up and disposal is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars annually. SB 270 phases out single-use plastic bags in California grocery stores, convenience stores, liquor stores and pharmacies.
Single-use plastic bags are also harmful to the environment, killing thousands of birds, turtles and other species. A study commissioned by the US Marine Debris Monitoring Program found that single-use plastic bags remain one of the top items found consistently during annual beach cleanups. Additionally, plastic items are estimated to compose 60-80 percent of all marine debris and 90 percent of all floating debris worldwide.
“Single-use plastic bags litter our beaches, our mountains, deserts, rivers, streams and lakes. SB 270 addresses this problem while striking the right balance. It protects the environment as well as California jobs as we transition to reusable bags and a greener economy,” said Senator Padilla.
“For nearly 10 million Californians, life without plastic grocery bags is already a reality,” Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, told the LA Times in October. “Bag bans reduce plastic pollution and waste, lower bag costs at grocery stores, and now we’re seeing job growth in California at facilities that produce better alternatives.”
In the end though, the biggest factor in a statewide ban might be the individual communities stepping forward to enact their own bans. That is what created the momentum for the statewide ban and what will likely make the statewide ban a moot point – and, therefore, a reality.
That is something to keep in mind as we watch the local soda tax ordinance pushed forward, and countered by its own industry forces. In the end these wars appear to be won at the local level through the creation of a critical mass.
—David M. Greenwald reporting