‘Made in California’ Plastic Bags Mean California Jobs

Jack Stewart
President of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association

It’s more important than ever that our leaders find ways to help California’s manufacturers grow and compete for our state’s fair share of the nation’s manufacturing renaissance.  What we most certainly do not need at this point are more obstacles and barriers to manufacturing job growth.

And yet, those keep coming.  Consider one current legislative proposal – a bill to ban plastic bags statewide.  While scientists and others may argue about whether this will help or hurt the environment, there is no disagreement about its immediate impact – it will threaten jobs in our manufacturing sector.  And while there may have been a time when legislators could ignore a few hundred jobs here and there as a reasonable trade-off for making a statement, this isn’t that time.

AB 158 by Assemblyman Marc Levine from Marin County would ban single-use plastic grocery bags and mandate that any store with more than $2 million in annual sales provide re-useable bags to all patrons.

Plastic bags are phenomenally strong for their weight and represent a dramatic level of cost-saving for grocers, retailers and, ultimately, consumers.  Despite their status as the favorite target for environmental activists, they boast a number of important advantages over the alternatives.  A 2008 study, for example, found that the reusable shopping bags being all but forced on consumers today often contain considerable bacterial build-up, mold and yeast.

Nobody is saying plastic bags are issue-free.  In fact, California has rightly been a leader in the effort to encourage their re-use and recycling.  Increasingly, shoppers are finding new uses for these bags and giving them much longer lives.  And better recycling processes means these bags are being used to make things like park benches or playground equipment.   These efforts work, and do so while still valuing the needs of our economy and the need for high-paying jobs.

Manufacturing in America is making a comeback.  U.S. manufacturing jobs grew by 4.5 percent from January, 2010 through 2012. This is great news for our entire economy, as it’s well-established that growth in manufacturing drives growth overall and creates high wage jobs.

Unfortunately, the news in California isn’t as good.  Here, manufacturing employment has been stagnant, sitting out the rebound seen in the rest of the country. In the past three years, the top 10 manufacturing states averaged a 6.3 percent growth in manufacturing employment.  In California, we saw less than a half-percentage point of growth.

Sadly, these facts are unlikely to stand in the way of the ongoing demonization of plastic bags. The drive to eliminate them has taken on the feel of a sacred mission among some elected officials. But pursuing this mission requires an ability to ignore some troubling realities.  First, we don’t solve litter problems by banning products; we solve litter problems by better enforcement and better efforts at recycling.  Second, there are more than 2,000 California families who put food on the table each night thanks to jobs associated with manufacturing plastic bags.

Some say California is inhospitable to manufacturing.  Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. Policymakers consistently ask me what they can do to help grow manufacturing jobs. Their efforts to find ways to help us compete are genuine.  But considering our state has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and a manufacturing sector that is missing out on a national rebound, one good way to help is to take a pass on actions that ban useful products, increase costs and eliminate good jobs.

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