Will California Say Bye-Bye to the Plastic Bag for Good This Time?

Two ballot initiatives involving the bag ban are on the ballot this November—but one of them is not what it seems. Here’s what you need to know.

Robert Birch

Californians, Election Day is a little more than a month away, but on that Tuesday you’ll need to decide not just who to vote for but what to vote for. I’m referring to the 17 statewide ballot initiatives (more than in any other state) to which voters will give a yea or nay.

Two of these initiatives, Proposition 67 and Proposition 65, involve a ban on one of our most ubiquitous environmental blights, the plastic bag—but one of them (Prop 65) is not what it seems. Below is a breakdown of what each initiative truly aims to do, along with recommendations on how to vote if you’d like to rid California of the 13 billion to 19 billion bags given out each year. (Spoiler: Vote yes on Prop 67 and no on Prop 65.)

PROP 67

California made environmental history in the fall of 2014 by becoming the first state ever to ban the single-use plastic bags that we get at the grocery for free. It didn’t last long. Out-of-state bag companies obviously weren’t keen on the ban, and they spent $3.2 million fighting it. The resulting referendum suspended the law until a popular vote could be conducted in November 2016 (that’s where you come in).

“The ban has been on hold for two years now,” says NRDC’s California legislative director Victoria Rome. But if Prop 67 passes, California can finally say bye-bye to the bag. The measure would eliminate the thin polyethylene bags from a whole stretch of large stores but allow retailers and grocers to sell recycled-content paper bags at a minimum price of 10 cents each. Shoppers using food stamps would be exempt from the 10-cent charge.

Today, 150 of the nearly 500 municipalities in California have already nixed free plastic bags. In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to adopt a local bag ban; Los Angeles did so in 2014. But laws that vary from city to city can be confusing for consumers and store management. So starting in 2009, environmentalists, grocers, retailers, and local governments began working on a statewide bag ban, which would make store policies uniform across the Golden State. This “was all part of the plan,” Rome says, referring to NRDC’s efforts to work from the local level up to make the difficult-to-recycle plastic bags, and the harm they cause, relics of the past.

Voting yes on Prop 67 will finally make the 2014 bag ban a reality, firmly establishing California as the first to enact a statewide ban on plastic bags. And like so many other environmentally progressive laws before it in California, the ban may start popping up in other states—which makes the plastic industry nervous.

PROP 65

Once again the bag industry is fighting back—this time by trying to muddy the waters with Prop 65. This initiative sounds innocent enough; it would require grocers to give all the proceeds from paper bag sales to an environmental fund. Sounds good, right? In actuality, Prop 65 is a divide-and-conquer ploy to make grocers turn their backs on the ban they currently champion. Prop 65 would also turn the 10-cent paper bag fee into a government tax, something not often popular among small businesses. Basically, taxing a store for helping to encourage better environmental practices among the public is not the best way to go.

“This is an attempt to confuse voters and split supporters of Prop 67,” Rome says. The San Jose Mercury News called Prop 65 “one of the most disingenuous ballot measures in state history.” The San Francisco Chronicle also recommends a yes on 67 and no on 65. We’re on to you, Big Plastic.

Do Bag Bans Work?

Plastic bags easily blow away, and where they go, they tend to stay—whether it be fraying in tree branches, clogging storm drains, tangling up recycling centers, or drifting in the ocean where marine animals like green sea turtles and pelicans can accidentally ingest them. Check out this mockumentary to get an idea of how bags travel over land and water.

But would their disappearance from stores make the bags vanish elsewhere?

Give it time. Dana Roeber Murray of Heal the Bay, a nonprofit that tracks plastic and other debris along the Los Angeles coastline, says legacy litter and trash coming in from adjacent communities makes assessing the progress made by the relatively new local bans difficult. Once eliminated statewide, the plastic bag’s omnipresence should begin to fade, though it may take years before we see a huge difference in the environment. Attitudes toward the single-use lifestyle, however, are more likely to turn on a dime. (And let’s not forget that our consumer habits have changed before. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the plastic bag use really took off. Before that, paper was the way to go.)

“A dime isn’t very much, but it still can nudge someone into thinking about whether the convenience of getting a bag is really worth the cost,” says Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. “It puts value—albeit a small one—on something we always got for free.”

Speaking of values and costs, California spends $428 million each year protecting its waters from trash. Plastic bags alone contribute between 8 percent to 25 percent of that litter, according to data compiled by the counties of San Jose and Los Angeles. That means an estimated $34 million to $107 million goes toward managing bag litter statewide. Put simply, plastic bags have never truly been free.

The 10-cent fee has been the only cause of frustration in shoppers so far, says Nicholas Miehl, a manager at a Trader Joe’s in San Francisco (where plastic bags have been banned for nine years). “But they’ll get used to it,” he says. “I think a statewide ban is a step in the right direction.”

Most Californians think so too. When the ban was first proposed in 2014, a USC Dornsife/LA Times poll showed that 60 percent of voters supported it. If you agree, vote yes on 67 and no on 65.

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