Editorial: Don’t backtrack on statewide plastic bag ban

Reprinted from The Sacramento Bee (1/6/2016)


Special to The Bee

The new year provokes reflection on victories we have achieved for social and environmental justice, including the growing effort to educate Californians about the costs of plastic pollution.

But that effort faces a fierce counterattack by out-of-state polluters to preserve their enormous profits at our expense.

Their assault on one pillar of our progress, the 2014 statewide ban on throwaway plastic bags, will appear on the ballot in November. A majority “yes” vote is needed to preserve our first-in-the-nation law.

Plastic pollution takes several forms and exacts a steep price from taxpayers, including millions of dollars spent by local governments to pull plastic from storm drains. In Los Angeles last fall, a flash flood hit homes and businesses in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Plastic bags were implicated in clogging a catch basin.

Plastic pollution also blights our parks and private property. It poses health threats to infants with suffocation (that’s why plastic bags carry a mandatory warning label), to children and adults from plastics that infiltrate our water supply and food chain, and to turtles and marine creatures that suffer by ingesting them.

Nearly two-thirds of Californians support the plastic bag ban, and stopping plastic pollution is a goal that unites us.

In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a statewide ban on tiny plastic microbeads, used in some facial cleansers and lotions. They escape most filters and pervade our lakes and waterways, where they absorb toxic compounds such as PCBs, and get consumed by fish that humans eat. Microbead levels in San Francisco Bay are among the highest in the nation. California’s ban built momentum for a bipartisan federal ban on microbeads, signed into law by the president last month.

Last week, Sacramento joined the list of more than 130 cities and counties throughout our state that ban throwaway plastic bags. It continues Californians’ shift to paper and reusable bags, often made with recycled material. Making and marketing reusable bags is a growing industry throughout our state with enormous growth potential.

That scares some out-of-state plastic makers, such as Hilex Poly in South Carolina. They spent millions of dollars to block our statewide ban on throwaway plastic bags from becoming law. When we prevailed against their lobbying onslaught, they spent millions more to trigger a referendum on the law.

Their business model depends on sending billions of products that don’t biodegrade into our state while sticking Californians with the costs of picking them out of storm grates and beaches and putting them in dumps.

Negative rankings for big out-of-state polluters, and strong public support for the bag ban, have led opponents to consider a desperate strategy. They may launch a parallel initiative to meddle with the law. Because that ballot measure would need a “no” vote to stop it, they’re banking on confusion among voters, who might simply vote no on both. Dirty profits call for devious measures.

Californians should not be duped. Voting “yes” to keep our hard-won statewide ban is one simple way to help our environment. We can also reject deception and manipulation of our democracy by out-of-state polluters who will do anything to hold back our cleaner, greener economy.

Dolores Huerta is co-founder of the United Farm Workers and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, and can be contacted at [email protected].

Hans Johnson is president of Progressive Victory and founder of the Institute for Smart Waste Policy, and can be contacted at [email protected].