Editorial: Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags; They Need to Go

State Sen. Alex Padilla is locked in a tight four-way primary race for the California secretary of state job. As the only officeholder officially in the race, he’s seen as the guy to beat.

The biggest challenge to his campaign is coming not from the other top candidates, however, but from an industry that doesn’t have a dog in the race: plastic bag makers, and, boy, they are mad.

Padilla’s bill to ban single-use plastic bags in California is the reason why. If this legislation passes, the nation’s plastic-bag factories will lose a huge market.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, the lobbying group for those factories, has targeted Padilla in a new ad campaign for television, radio and online that launched last week. The ads, on CNN and at Bagtheban.com, paint him as a “dirty” politician who only pretends to care about the environment so he can collect money from “special interests.”

Though such ruthless attack ads on one person are a staple of modern-day elections, it’s unusual for them to come from an industry opposed to a specific piece of legislation.

But there’s a lot at stake – millions of dollars in profit and jobs, though exactly how many is not clear.

More than 100 cities and counties have enacted some version within the last decade, and the results have been dramatic and immediate – usage of plastic bags has been cut in half from 30 billion to 14 billion.

Two previous attempts at a statewide ban since 2010 were successfully beaten back by pressure from the bag industry that cowed legislators. The crucial difference this year is that two pivotal Democratic senators voted against last year’s ban – Kevin de Léon and Ricardo Lara. Both signed on as co-sponsors. De Léon took a lot of grief for his vote from environmental advocates in his Los Angeles district after last year’s bill failed, and admirably responded by joining Padilla this year.

The bill passed a committee Wednesday and is scheduled to be heard in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee this week.

Support in the Assembly isn’t as clear-cut, but it’s too close for comfort for the multimillion-dollar industry. You can tell because they’ve called in the big guns. The alliance has spent about $646,000 in the past two years on some of the best connected lobbyists – Mercury Public Affairs and Sloat Higgins Jensen, plus more on consultants including Steve Schmidt, a longtime communications specialist who has worked on big-name political campaigns.

Why so worried? Isn’t there plenty of market share left for plastic bags outside California? Maybe, but California is influential, Schmidt told me Friday, “in that what starts in California has a tendency to move to other places in the country.”

Whatever the industry spends to fight it, it probably won’t be enough to turn the changing tide of public opinion in California – and in the Capitol. During a hearing of the bill in Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, supporters outnumbered opponents at least 3 to 1. The line of supporters was so that long most didn’t get time to say anything more than their names and who they represented.

Among them: Rite Aid, Target, the grocers and retailers associations, a number of California counties, Sierra Club, Heal the Bay and Californians Against Waste, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Chico Bag Co. and Command Packaging – a single-use plastic-bag maker planning to transition to making more durable bags.

The line for those speaking against the Senate Bill 270 was considerably shorter. They included a salesman for Crown Poly, a bag manufacturing company in Los Angeles, who said local bans were already cutting into the company’s business, an employee of Crown Poly who said she was afraid for her job, and representatives from companies that supply or recycle single-use bags.

Despite what the industry says about the public’s low regard for the bans, it has adapted with little outcry. The arguments against single-use bags just have not resonated, or are specifically addressed in this bill: That they can be reused (true, but not the 125 times required by reusable replacements that would be required to by Padilla’s bill); that a ban would hurt poor people (the fee for paper bags would be waived); that single-use bags can be recycled (a vast majority are thrown away); that reusable bags are germy (so, wash them); that paper bags, which would still be allowed for a 10-cent fee, are worse for environment because of how they are made (no one has to use a paper bag); and that this is all just a giveaway to the grocers who will get to pocket the 10-cent fee for paper bags.

The last is the most ridiculous claim – and the basis of the attack against Padilla. It’s true that the grocers’ group has given millions to legislators in the last four years, some of it – though not that much – directly to Padilla. It’s also true that those opposed to this ban – the alliance, bag companies and the American Chemistry Council – have spent millions fighting it and other attempts. That included an ad campaign targeted at the entire Legislature in 2010.

Indeed, Hilex Poly, the South Carolina company instrumental in fighting this and other attempts to ban single-use plastic bags across the country, has donated more than $115,000 to California legislators since 2011 – including a $3,900 donation to Padilla. If this bill were really about payback to special interests, it’s not paying out well for any of them.

Though a study commission by the bag alliance contends that grocers could make collectively between $189 million and $442 million a year by selling paper bags and reusable bags, data I’ve seen don’t bear that out.

Consider recent figures from Los Angeles County about the effects of its 2011 ban. The 73 stores affected, on average, made about $8,000 a year from the 10-cent fee on paper bags, the county reports. And that figure is likely to drop; before the ban, stores in unincorporated Los Angeles County supplied consumers with 200,000 paper carry-out bags a year, in addition to more than 2 million plastic bags. After the ban, the number of paper bags used fell to just 168,000 in 2013. That’s exactly the point of the proposed statewide ban – not to substitute one disposable bag for another, but to change behavior.

It seems to be working. No wonder the plastic-bag industry is worried.

Reprinted from The Sacramento Bee (5/18/2014)