Plastic bag manufacturers have one last chance to keep their product in the nation’s largest market. The industry has placed two measures on California’s November ballot. One is a referendum on a law that bans single-use plastic bags. The other would require retailers to send bag fee revenues to an environmental fund.
Sacramento is one of more than 150 communities around the state where grocers and large retailers no longer give customers single-use thin plastic bags. Instead, grocers must charge customers at least 10 cents for paper or a thicker reusable plastic bag.
At a Bel Air grocery store, employees bagging groceries say as a result they've seen a change in customer habits; they’re not using as many bags.
“We try not to make it too heavy or we like to balance out the bag and we try to keep frozen separate from produce and all that, but now that they have to buy bags they’re like, 'just throw it all in there,'” says store employee Carlyn Guerrero.
Maria Brady of Sacramento pushes her cart up to the check out line.
“I only brought one bag, so whatever you can fit in there, I don’t want to buy more," she says to Guerrero.
That’s exactly the sort of change in consumer behavior that pleases Mark Murray with Californians Against Waste. He’s hoping voters approve Proposition 67, which would uphold the statewide bag ban that’s been on hold since Governor Jerry Brown signed it two years ago.
“You’re eliminating some 300 bags per capita of plastic bags, but there’s also been a reduction in paper bag use. Having to pay the cost of the paper bag, is causing consumers to use fewer paper bags,” says Murray.
Murray says plastic bags wash into waterways, choke wildlife, and damage recycling machinery. Out-of-state bag manufacturers say the real damage is how poorly SB 270, the law banning plastic bags, was written.
“If you wanted to discourage people using these products, putting a fee or a tax on them may in fact do so. But the issue with this bill, is that none of that money actually goes to the environment," says Jon Berrier, who represents the American Progressive Bag Alliance.
Berrier says grocers make "windfall profits" from the minimum 10 cent charge for alternative bags.
"It all goes to the interest group that lobbied for this aggressively, when they saw the opportunity to make money off a bill under the guise of environmentalism that was going to put more profits into their pockets,” says Berrier.
So plastic bag manufacturers put Proposition 65 on the ballot, which redirects bag revenue to a new state environmental fund. It only takes effect if manufacturers lose their fight to repeal the bag ban.
“It’s the only way, if SB 270 goes into law on Nov. 9, that that bill will have a meaningful environmental impact, is if this money actually goes to an environmental purpose.”
Grocers say thin one-use plastic bags are cheap, which is why they were so widely used. Each cost one cent. Alternatives like paper or reusable thick plastic can cost at least 8 cents per bag.
“It’s not of our interest to take money or use this as an opportunity to get new revenue, it’s really just to cover the cost of the bag," says Chelsea Minor, with the Northern California grocery store chain Raley’s.
The plastics industry spent $5 million putting Propositions 67 and 65 on the ballot. Environmental groups say Prop 65 is merely a ploy to confuse and mislead voters.
“It’s cleverly deceptive,” says Mark Murray with Californians Against Waste. “It’s really just designed to shift the conversation away from the problem with plastic to a conversation about the cost. Their goal, number one goal, is to block the passage of the statewide bag ban.”
If both measures pass, it’s unclear if they would work together or if only the one that wins the most votes would take effect. Another catch: Legal experts say Proposition 65 could nullify the bag ban. That would be up to the courts.
Correction: An earlier version of this story used the wrong first name for the spokeswoman for the Northern California grocery store chain Raley's. Her name is Chelsea Minor, not Christine. We regret the error.