Dog Days for Defenders of Plastic Bags

Joe Rodota

CEO of Forward Observer, a public affairs firm with offices in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and served as deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Pete Wilson


Columnist Katy Grimes recently criticized SB 270, California’s new law banning single-use plastic bags and replacing them with reusable bags and recyclable paper bags, and praised efforts by a handful of out-of-state plastic bag manufacturers to suspend implementation of this law through the state’s referendum process.

“Staring at a gigantic German Shepherd poop on my bedroom rug last weekend,” she writes, “I reached for one of those single-use grocery bags outlawed by California, for the cleanup. Thankfully, I have a small stash of single use plastic bags, but not for long.”

Let me start with the obvious question: Why is her dog relieving himself on the bedroom floor?

Portia, our family’s yellow lab, was able to signal clearly when she needed to leave the house to do her business – even when, in the last few years of her life, she operated on three legs. (The fourth leg was lost to cancer.)   Portia would stand by the living room door and we would respond by opening it.

Assuming Grimes’ dog is (a) ambulatory and (b) able to send similar signals, SB 270 specifically exempts bags for vegetables or meat which will still be available for free in California grocery stores. Should Grimes walk her dog to facilitate nature’s processes, Amazon offers 616 different bags for collecting and disposing dog waste. Some urban parks also provide pet-cleanup bags on-site.

The new statewide ban on single-use plastic bags will result in billions fewer plastic bags in California landfills and on our beaches, parks and streets. Of course, that isn’t good news if you are an out-of-state manufacturer of plastic bags. Which is why donations to the referendum campaign are coming from Hilex Poly which is headquartered in South Carolina and is now part of Novolex ($1.7 million); Formosa Plastic, which is headquartered in New Jersey ($400,000); and Superbag Corp ($333,333) and Advance Polybag ($166,666), both of which are based in Texas. The total investment by out-of-state plastic bag companies in this referendum drive is $2.68 million or 98% of the total raised to date.

Cleaning up after a few other false assertions in Grimes’ column:

Grimes disingenuously calls single-use plastic bags “recyclable” but the fact is that only 3% of single-use plastic bags are actually recycled statewide, according to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

Grimes claims SB 270 would have negative impacts on “the working poor,” but the bill exempts families on public assistance from having to purchase a paper bag.

Grimes says SB 270 will “threaten 500 jobs in the plastic bag manufacturing business.” But this jobs number has been a moving target: The American Progressive Bag Alliance said in May 2014, a statewide ban “threatens nearly 2,000” jobs; the California Manufacturing and Technology Association (CMTA) said the bill “threatens at least hundreds, if not thousands” of jobs. The Sacramento Bee called these jobs claims “baseless.”

As CMTA also notes, there are 60 manufacturers of plastic bags of all types in California, and 100 manufacturers of paper bags; demand for some of these other products will increase once SB 270 is implemented.  An executive with Crown Poly, a California-based plastic bag manufacturer that has made a small ($12,000) donation to the referendum drive, has said a statewide ban “will hurt California workers.” But a Crown Poly manager has touted its technology to manufacture reusable bags, signaling the company is already adjusting to market conditions.

Grimes says “local grocers” will “make millions every year” from the ban on single-use plastic bags. This is a key talking point for the plastic bag industry, but it is based on a gross misrepresentation of a study they commissioned.  Profit margins in the grocery industry average 1.3% according to Jeff Cohen, an industry analyst.  Grocery store revenues will continue to be driven by the products they sell at the check-out stand, not by the bags they put them in.

SB 270 is what economists now call a “nudge” – a small incentive that prompts consumers to do something that is clearly in their self-interest. The experience in 137 cities and counties in California shows that a small charge on a paper bag serves as a reminder to people to store and reuse their paper bags, or keep a reusable bag in the kitchen or car for use at the supermarket, resulting in the use of fewer bags overall. That is why two public opinion surveys recently found that a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags earned the support of more than 60 percent of Californians, with support strongest in areas of the state already covered by local bans.

Even if Novolex/Hilex Poly, Formosa Plastics, Advance Polybag, Superbag Corp and other companies raise the $30 million – $50 million needed to mount a statewide campaign in 2016 to overturn the statewide plastic bag ban, the climb is very steep.

So what is to be done about a German Shepherd who poops on a rug? That problem is something Grimes can solve on her own, without putting SB 270 on the statewide California ballot.

Joe Rodota is co-manager of California vs. Big Plastic, a coalition of environmental, business, consumer, labor groups and citizens opposed to the referendum campaign led by out-of-state plastic bag companies to overturn SB 270, California’s plastic bag ban.

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