The plastic bag ban epic

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: By now, everyone knows that the epic California bag ban battles have finally come to an end. SB 270--a bill sponsored by Senator Alex Padilla from Los Angeles--was approved by a 44 to 29 vote in the Assembly and a 22 to 15 vote in the Senate and now is awaiting Governor Jerry Brown's signature, which he promised he would give in the gubernatorial debate last week.

California will be the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags. The journey to the governor's desk was a rocky one that started in 2006. Back then, I was running Heal the Bay and anti-plastic pollution stalwart Leslie Tamminen was our staff attorney. We came to the conclusion that our hundreds of annual beach and river cleanups and the "total maximum daily load" standards for trash in the Los Angeles River were reducing trash in our waterways, but they weren't solving the problem. Our rivers and beaches still looked like trash dumps after every rain, and plastic bags, cigarette butts and styrofoam cups were the primary culprits. Cigarette smoking bans were becoming commonplace on local beaches, so ubiquitous plastic bags became the target for environmental groups.

plastic bag mockumentary2.jpgWith partnership from Heal the Bay and Californians Against Waste, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine from the San Fernando Valley started working on a bag fee bill: AB 2449. Unfortunately, pressure from the plastic bag manufacturers and others led to a last minute change in AB 2449. What started out as a single use plastic bag fee bill ended up a plastic bag recycling bill. Heal the Bay went from a bill sponsor to opposing the bill, which was signed into law by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but was an utter failure. Not only did the bill lead to an anemic increase in bag recycling to roughly 5 percent statewide, it also included a poison pill that prohibited local governments from instituting fees on single use plastic bags.

Heal the Bay realized that we can't recycle our way to cleaning up our rivers and the ocean. The best, non-fee-based recycling programs only capture 70 to 80 percent of the targeted waste which would still leave over a billion bags a year going to California's landfills and waterways. AB 2449 banned plastic bag fees, but not bag bans. So we started working with local cities on bag ban ordinances.

San Francisco was the first major city to ban plastic bags in 2007. Santa Monica, Malibu and others started banning single use bags. Manhattan Beach banned plastic bags and it ended up getting sued by the "Save the Plastic Bag" coalition made up of plastic bag manufacturers. Remarkably, the plastic bag manufacturers won in state district court and appellate court on the argument that an environmental impact report was needed before the city council could approve the ordinance. Luckily, attorneys from Californians Against Waste and Heal the Bay intervened on behalf of Manhattan Beach and the California Supreme Court overruled the lower court decisions in 2011.

Meanwhile, plastic bag ban legislation at the state level kept coming close, but it couldn't cross the finish line, despite the best efforts of Heal the Bay's Kirsten James and Sarah Sikich, Seventh Generation Advisors' Leslie Tamminen, Environment California's Dan Jacobson, the Clean Seas Coalition, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Surfrider Foundation, and many others in the environmental community, as well as Assemblywoman Julia Brownley. Even the viral 2010 Heal the Bay mockumentary, "The Majestic Plastic Bag"--narrated by Oscar winner, Jeremy Irons, and with the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the California Retailers Association, and the California Grocers Association--wasn't enough to get bag ban bill out of the state senate. Too much plastic bag manufacturer money--Hilex Poly Company and the American Chemistry Council in particular--paying for too many lobbyists led to the bill's demise.

But by the end of 2010, momentum had grown tremendously with local government plastic bag bans. LA County, led by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, banned plastic bags in 2010. Long Beach, led by Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, banned the bag in 2012. And the city of LA, with Councilman Paul Koretz as the lead author, banned plastic bags in 2013. If the state wasn't going to ban single use plastic bags, then local government would do it instead. By the time the 2014 legislative session began, nearly a third of the state lived in the more than 140 cities and counties with plastic bag bans in California. The state had to act or allow an increasingly complex patchwork quilt of local bag ban ordinances to spread across California leading to growing consumer confusion and a more difficult playing field for retailers.

By 2013, the environmental community finally got the bill author needed to get the bill passed: Alex Padilla. Senator Padilla is a powerful, moderate Democrat and he represents the eastern San Fernando Valley--a diverse population with numerous residents in the blue collar manufacturing sector. Senator Padilla teamed up with Senator Kevin de Léon and Senator Ricardo Lara to come up with a bill that wasn't exactly what the environmental community wanted--because of language that allowed durable reusable plastic bags and compostable bags to be sold--but that could withstand the lobbying efforts from the historical opponents of bag bans.

As a result, the bag ban bill passed and it includes funds for plastic bag manufacturers to retool their facilities to make reusable bags, and an allowance for stores to sell reusable plastic bags for 10 cents or more as long as the bags meet specified recycled content requirements. The bottom line is that California's bag ban will take effect in large stores by July 1, 2015, and in convenience stores and food-marts by July 1, 2016.

It took a decade to ban plastic bags in California. Arguments that banning plastic bags would result in thousands of job losses, infectious disease outbreaks, losses of our constitutional rights, and a financial windfall for California retailers are unfounded and will, hopefully, finally be put to rest.

The plastic bag ban was supposed to be a quick win that would lead to a more concerted effort to break our addiction to single use plastic packaging. But now the plastic pollution crisis has radiated to the farthest reaches of the world's oceans. And banning plastic bags in California won't solve that problem. But our efforts have shown the world that we can live without plastic bags. Can we do the same for styrofoam cups, snack packaging, sporks, straws, and bottle caps? For the sake of our rivers and oceans, we need to. Now. It shouldn't take another decade.

Photo from "The Majestic Plastic Bag," a mockumentary, courtesy of Heal the Bay.


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