Listening to the plastic-bag industry oppose bans on their product is eerily similar to what carmakers said decades ago in opposition to seat belts and air bags.
Bad idea, they argued. Bad for consumers. Won’t accomplish what supporters intend.
In fact, seat belts cut the number of crash-related injuries and deaths in half, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the combination of seat belts and air bags reduced fatalities by more than 60%.
And now we have plastic-bag manufacturers claiming that bans at the local and state level hurt the economy, kill jobs, tax the poor and don’t actually help the environment.
“It’s yet another job-killing, big grocer cash grab masquerading as an environmental bill,” Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, said of California’s ban on plastic bags that takes effect in July.
A ban on plastic bags in Los Angeles County took effect four months ago. A 10-cent fee is charged for paper bags.
The plastic-bag industry, like the auto industry before it, wants people to think it’s fighting the good fight on behalf of personal freedom, individual liberty and common sense.
All it’s really doing is trying to protect its profits.
The plastic-bag industry is now gearing up — and spending heavily — to place a referendum on the November 2016 ballot that would overturn California’s bag ban. It has until Dec. 29 to collect the more than 500,000 signatures needed to put the matter to voters.
I spotted an ad on Craigslist for people to receive $1.50 for every signature they gather in support of the referendum. “It is basically to reverse the ban,” the ad says, “but the way you pitch is to vote on it whether you want it or not.”
Daniels acknowledged that the industry is employing professional signature gatherers.
Plastics companies recently contributed about $1.2 million toward the referendum campaign, according to public records. All but $50,000 came from companies based outside California.
The largest donation — $566,666.67 — was made by South Carolina’s Hilex Poly, one of the country’s largest plastic-bag makers and the main provider of funds for Daniels’ American Progressive Bag Alliance.
Indeed, when he isn’t defending “progressive” bags, which are more friendly sounding than plastic bags, Daniels is Hilex Poly’s vice president of sustainability and environmental policy.
California’s ban, Daniels told me, is not about the environment. “It’s about a backroom deal to scam Californians out of billions of dollars.”
By the industry’s reckoning, he said, state lawmakers bowed to pressure from grocery stores and unions to require that consumers pay extra for paper or reusable bags.
“We’re getting inundated with calls from Californians thanking us for doing this,” Daniels said of the planned referendum. “It’s very encouraging for our industry.”
Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, which spearheaded the statewide bag ban, said he very much doubted that bag makers are being swamped with calls of support from state residents.
About 60% of voters said they support the statewide bag ban, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released Friday.
Murray said the industry’s claims of broad support mirror its insistence that plastic bags are environmentally safe. “They don’t have a real argument, so they’re using bogus arguments,” he said.
A plastics industry website, BagTheBan.com, says that “studies show banning plastic bags could increase global warming, put more carbon in the air, require more trucks on the road and use up more water because consumers would be forced to use resource-heavy alternatives like paper and reusable bags.”
The reality, Murray said, is that plastic bags are a blight on the landscape after being discarded by careless consumers or blowing from trash cans, garbage trucks or landfills.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reported last year that California communities spend more than $428 million a year trying to prevent litter from entering the state’s waterways.
Plastic bags make up as much as a quarter of all that trash, the group found. They pose a threat to wildlife, clog storm drains and threaten vital industries, such as tourism and commercial fishing, it said.
“The environmental cost of this product far exceeds its utility,” Murray said.
He said California’s bag ban was the result of many hours of public hearings and negotiations with interested parties. But because the industry didn’t get its way, Murray said, “they’re now just buying their way onto the ballot.”
It’s a fair point. If Californians were clamoring for an end to a law that hasn’t even taken effect yet, they’d be signing petitions at a grass-roots level, not at the behest of mercenary hustlers making $1.50 a signature.
The California Legislature passed a bill in 2011 that would have prohibited petition circulators being paid on a per-signature basis, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. He said the legislation was “a dramatic change to a long-established democratic process in California.”
Contrast that with Oregon, which in 2002 required that petition circulators be paid by the hour, not per signature gathered. Since then, the state’s initiative process hasn’t died. It’s just become more representative of the public’s wishes.
Both Daniels and Murray predicted that a referendum on California’s bag ban will come before voters in 2016. Even if it fails to pass, it would likely delay implementation of the ban for months.
And that would translate into additional profit for the bag industry.
Call it the best democracy money can buy.