Editorial: Filling Up California With Plastic

Having spent most of last week listening to California lawmakers debate the merits of bills relating to the environment and the economy, one familiar word immediately jumped into my head on Friday when, driving in Oregon, I pulled into a gas station and was immediately greeted by a man wearing a working man’s uniform:


Oregon is one of two states in which self-service gas pumping is a crime.

It is an odd sensation for a Californian to pull into a gas station and remain seated behind the steering wheel as a stranger appears at the window and asks, “Fill it up with regular?”

That service may seem time-consuming and unnecessary, but give it this: Requiring that attendants pump gas creates nearly 10,000 jobs in Oregon. Since about 16 times more gasoline is sold in California, a similar law in the Golden State would likely translate to about 160,000 jobs.

Now there’s an idea for an enterprising California lawmaker next year: Introduce a bill to ban self-service gas pumping and create 160,000 jobs.

But wait a minute. An Oregon State University economist estimates that the requirement that attendants pump gas adds from 3 cents to 4 cents a gallon to the cost of gas in Oregon.

Given that a similar law in California would result in higher gasoline prices, the Chamber of Commerce would probably call such a bill — one that would create 160,000 jobs — a “job-killer.”

My head was still spinning from having listened to numerous debates about jobs in the Assembly and Senate last week, but as the helpful attendant stuck the nozzle into my gas tank, my brain cleared and a truth emerged:

Not all jobs are created equal, and to debate public policy solely on the basis of the net increase or decrease in jobs makes about as much sense as pulling into a gas station and not being about to fill your own tank.

On Thursday, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, had sought, unsuccessfully, to make essentially the same point as he argued for his bill that would have banned single-use plastic bags in California supermarkets and drugstores.

Several of the bill’s opponents had passionately argued that such a ban would cost jobs in California.

“I consider myself an environmentalist,” Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, had said, “but this is not an abstract concept to me. These are real jobs, real lives.”

Padilla seemed perplexed.

He said he had researched the six plastics companies that had registered their opposition to his bill and, as best he could tell, only one still manufactured the types of bags that would have been banned. The others had transitioned to making reusable plastic bags, or made the type of clear-plastic bags that are used by consumers to package fresh produce. Those bags, he noted, would have been unaffected by his bill.

In addition, the bill would have created new markets for reusable bags made from plastic, creating new jobs and providing opportunities for today’s workers to be retrained.

The vast majority of the 14 billion single-use plastic bags distributed in California each year, Padilla determined, are made in North Carolina, Texas and overseas.

In the end, he said, perhaps only a couple hundred California jobs would be affected — jobs that involve making a product that plainly causes harm to the environment and contributes mightily to a buildup of plastic waste in oceans and waterways.

When California banned smoking in public places and took other measures to discourage tobacco use, he asked rhetorically, did anyone seriously object on the grounds that the benefit to public health should have been trumped by the loss of a relatively small number of jobs supported by the sale of cigarettes?

State and local governments pay to dispose of those billions of urban tumbleweeds that collect in storm drains and on beaches, and to handle them as best they can at waste-sorting facilities and landfills.

“It’s not as if there’s not a cost on all families in California today,” Padilla said. “We’re already paying for plastic bags.”

As for their effect on the environment, Padilla noted that “1,000 years from now, when all the canvas and paper has biodegraded, the plastic will still be around and impacting our world.”

In the end, the bill fell three votes short of passage.

Perhaps those senators who professed that their opposition was based solely on a concern about jobs might consider a fact-finding trip to Portland.

That city, like 75 cities in California, bans single-use plastic bags. But it has plenty of jobs for gas station attendants.

By Timm Herdt
Ventura County Star Columist

Reprinted from Contra Costa Times (6/5/2013)