Plastic Bag Industry May Have Suffocated California Grocery Ban

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The plastic bag industry is not walking away from the giant California market without a fight for the right to blitz the state with advertising on behalf of their sullied grocery store product.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) submitted more than 800,000 signatures to the California Secretary of State in support of a referendum (pdf) to repeal legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September which bans the use of plastic grocery bags on July 1, 2015. It needs 505,000 to be certified as valid to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.

It cost the alliance $3 million to generate the groundswell of support for continuing to litter the landscape and ocean with dangerous and nonbiodegradeable plastic. But if the signatures are certified, the law would be suspended until after voters get their say. Californians Against Waste say that 16-month delay alone is worth an estimated $145 million to the industry.

Right now, it looks like the plastics industry has a tough climb ahead. An October USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed that 59% of California voters said they would vote against a measure to repeal the ban. Forty-nine percent said they felt strongly about that and only 34% said they would vote for it.  

But early polling can be deceiving. Last June, 69% of the people in a Field Poll favored letting California’s Department of Insurance commissioner clamp down on excessive health insurance rate increases. After outspending supporters 50-1, the industry’s persuasiveness was rewarded with a 59% vote against the ballot initiative in November.

The day after Governor Brown signed the bag ban, the conservative U-T San Diego began a poll of its readership on the very unscientific query: “What do you think of California’s plastic bag ban?” It was a squeaker. “Love it, let’s celebrate” lost to “Hate it, let’s repeal it” 51%-49%, without an advertising onslaught.

The statewide referendum on plastic bags comes after hundreds of cities and counties have already passed bans of their own. Those bans cover about 30% of the state’s population.

At stake is what becomes of an estimated 10 billion plastic bags that end up in the environment, posing a toxic threat to habitats and species, from birds to plankton. The industry claims that the problem can be solved by encouraging people to recycle their bags.

A recycling pitch could resonate with some Californians. Others might respond to arguments from the industry that the bag ban, like just about every environmental law, is a job killer. Unnecessary over-regulation by an oppressive government is a time-honored theme that should fit neatly around the issue, but one of the more entertaining elements of the ad campaign may employ a tactic honed to perfection by Karl Rove.

The Republican political operative would effectively identify his side’s weakness and then project it onto his opponent, which at the very least neutralizes the issue into a “he said, she said” argument, and at best tarred the opponent with negative falsehoods. The plastics industry has already made the argument that greed was a central motivation in the fight over whether to make millions off the toxic product, but it wasn’t their greed.

“SB 270 was never a bill about the environment,” APBA Executive Director Lee Califf said in a statement. “It was a backroom deal between the grocers and union bosses to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees without providing any public benefit.”

Califf is talking about a 10-cent fee or more stores are allowed to charge people who need a paper or reusable plastic bag. The stores say the money covers the expense of providing the service.

Dan Schnur, poll director and executive director of the Unruh Institute of Politics of USC, said the plastic bag industry has an uphill battle in a referendum to undo something that has just been changed, “so they’ll need to take a general argument about government overreach and sharpen it into a more specific fight about taxes.”

But just getting the referendum on the ballot, if they truly have the signatures, is already a big win for the plastic bag industry’s short-term bottom line.    

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:  

California Plastic Bag Ban Referendum Has Enough Signatures, Backers Say (by Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

Proposed Ballot Measure Means California Plastic Bag Ban Likely on Hold (by Martin Wisckol, Orange County Register)

California Plastic Bag Ban Likely on Hold as Referendum Heads Toward 2016 Ballot (by Reid Wilson, Washington Post)

Effort to Kill California's Ban on Plastic Grocery Bags Moves Forward (by Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)

California Is First State to Ban Plastic Bags, Just in Time for Repeal Movement (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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