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Plastics industry, facing crackdown, targets Democrats with mailers deemed deceptive

A mailer shows a harried parent with the header "The Cost of Living is Skyrocketing in California."
A front group for the plastics industry has been sending mailers to households in Southern California, trying to head off legislation or a ballot measure that would restrict single-use plastic containers.
(Susanne Rust / Los Angeles Times)

Cheryl Auger was stunned this month when one of her Pasadena neighbors and friends received a flier in the mail featuring her state assemblyman, with a line stating, “Higher taxes on plastic products will enrich corporate interests with no guarantee of reducing plastic waste.”

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Auger’s friend was on the receiving end of a plastics industry campaign to pressure state lawmakers into weakening proposed restrictions on single-use containers, which legislators are mulling in bill form and which could become a November ballot measure.

“What is surprising to me is a lack of culpability ,” said Auger, a plastic waste activist.

The mailers, sent by a group calling itself the Environmental Solutions Coalition, assert without attribution that bans on single-use plastics “will have a devastating impact on working families” by driving up costs for consumers. Unmentioned in the mailings are that plastics manufacturers and other industries are financing the coalition.

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The fliers are all aimed at Democrats, largely in Southern California, possibly an attempt to pressure them into derailing the November ballot measure by enacting watered-down legislation the industry can accept.

“I interpret it as a message, as a warning to members of the Legislature,” said Assembly Member Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino), whose constituents received one of the mailers. “If that’s the intent, it’s backfired because it’s made us even more committed to trying to pass meaningful legislation to crack down on plastic pollution.”

In the current legislative session, lawmakers are working on a bill designed to reduce plastic waste. If they are unable to draft legislation by June 30, the issue will go straight to voters as a ballot measure.

The initiative, the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, would require all single-use plastic packaging and food ware used in California to be recyclable, reusable, refillable or compostable by 2030. Single-use plastic production would have to be reduced by 25% by 2030. The costs of the program are to be borne by the producers and distributors of single-use plastics, and the language explicitly states the costs cannot be passed on to the consumer.

Environmentalists and industry are at odds over a November ballot initiative that would reduce single-use plastics and polystyrene food containers.

U.S. industries for decades have formed seeming “grass-roots groups” to push agendas such as lower taxes and fewer restrictions on tobacco and pollution. The groups behind the Environmental Solutions Coalition include the California Business Roundtable and the American Chemistry Council, which includes plastics manufacturers and oil companies. Members of the coalition have stated they’d prefer to see the issue settled in the Legislature.

The coalition’s mailers targeted constituents of at least five lawmakers — Assembly Members Gabriel, Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) and Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda). None were consulted before their images were included in the mailers, according to Michael Bustamante, a spokesman for the coalition.

Holden could not be reached for comment, and Garcia’s office said it was unaware of the fliers.

Irwin sent a statement saying she preferred a legislative solution to the problem of plastic waste, and as yet has not “taken a position on the single use plastics initiative.”

Bauer-Kahan said she had never heard of the Environmental Solutions Coalition, “nor have I had any conversations with them regarding any initiative.” She said she supported a reduction of single-use plastics and she has consistently supported legislation to “curb plastic pollution.”

Like his colleagues, Gabriel said he wants the Legislature to solve the issue, but described the mailers and intimidation campaign as “unsettling” and “confusing.”

“As a pure matter of politics, I think it’s a very poorly done piece,” he said about the flier’s messaging. “I don’t know anyone who can figure out exactly what it’s trying to communicate.”

In California and some other states, plastics restrictions are gaining momentum because of evolving research into their health and environmental impacts.

Plastics never fully degrade. They just break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. These particles often contain harmful chemical additives such as flame retardants or plasticizers. Reports suggest that humans consume roughly a credit card’s worth of microplastic each week.

Over the last year, research has shown the presence of these particles in human blood, healthy lung tissue and meconium — the first bowel movement of a newborn. They are also found in marine organisms, ocean water, air and soil.

Some researchers project that by 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than there are fish.

Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta claims Exxon Mobil and other corporations have perpetuated the ‘myth’ that recycling will solve the plastics crisis.

Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste, said he found it revealing that the plastics industry decided to hide behind layers of trade associations and front groups, instead of making its pitch directly to voters.

“This kind of deceptive action is exactly the issue that the attorney general raised a couple weeks ago,” said Lapis, whose nonprofit group has advocated on waste and recycling issues since 1977.

Last month, California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, announced a first-of-its kind investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their alleged role in causing and exacerbating a global crisis in plastic waste pollution. Bonta accused them of “perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.”

Bustamante, the spokesman for the Environmental Solutions Coalition, also was unable to succinctly sum up the message of the fliers, but said they targeted legislators in the Los Angeles area who he considered “part of a common-sense coalition.”

He said the mailer was sent to the constituents of lawmakers who “have historically been on the record as paying very close attention to the kinds of things and issues that could increase costs to their constituents.”

The fliers do not explicitly mention the pending legislation or the initiative, but stated that “adding billions of dollars in higher costs on the backs of working families is the wrong way to do it.”

Auger, a cybersecurity specialist who co-founded a refill store in Pasadena to help consumers reduce plastic waste, said she was not completely surprised by the front group’s scare tactics. The industry, she said, has “stymied anything significant on plastics since the 1990s.”


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