California plastic bag ban on hold pending 2016 vote

California election officials confirmed Tuesday that opponents of the statewide ban on plastic bags had collected the necessary half million signatures to place the issue before voters.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
A man carries plastic single-use bags past the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 12. Election officials said Tuesday that a trade group had turned in enough signatures to qualify a referendum on California’s plastic bag ban law, suspending implementation of the nation’s first statewide ban until voters weigh in on the November 2016 ballot.

Opponents of a California plastic bag ban have succeeded in stopping the ban from going into effect July 1 by securing a spot on the 2016 ballot.

The Golden State had been slated to become the first US state to institute such a ban, but Tuesday, state election officials confirmed that the national advocacy group American Progressive Bag Alliance had collected the necessary half million signatures to place the issue before voters. This will stall a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in September until after the 2016 election.

California’s vote will be closely watched, points out sustainability manager Liesel Schwarz from Villanova University near Philadelphia. 

“Historically, California has been a trendsetter in environmental initiatives, most notably being their higher fuel standards for cars sold in the state,” Ms. Schwarz says via email.

In recent years, the global trend has tilted toward more fines and outright bans on single-use plastic bags. China, for instance banned their use in 2008 immediately prior to the Olympic Games. A host of European Union countries have either banned or restricted their use and the Indian city of Delhi even provides for prison terms for violations. According to a 2011 investigative report by Rolling Stone, at least 25 percent of the world lives under some form of ban or fines on the use of single-use plastic bags.

In the United States, individual communities have implemented local bans in at least 18 states. In the Golden State, 138 cities and communities – including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose – already ban the single-use plastic bag. However, legislators have been slow to jump on prohibition of plastic bags at the state or national level. Debates over statewide bans have been heated even in blue states, where a large number of municipalities have instituted bans.

Opponents of the measure in California say the new regulations are misguided and should be voted down. American Progressive Bag Alliance spokesman Jon Barrier says the ban will have an “infinitesimal” impact on cleaning up litter.

“The idea that banning this product is going to have any significant environmental benefit is wrong and is misguided ideology,” Mr. Barrier says.

At the same time, says Barrier, laws such as this will negatively impact thousands of jobs across the country.

Beyond that, he points out that up to 70 percent of plastic bags are reused for such purposes as wastebasket liners or pet litter. 

The law also allows grocers to collect a 10-cent fee for paper bags, which Barrier suggests should rankle true environmentalists.

“None of that money goes to any public purpose,” he says, noting “this is just a big scam on consumers.”

Villanova’s Schwarz sees the opponents’ claim that the ban will negatively impact jobs as a red herring.

“It may be true that some jobs will be lost due to the ban, but it is also likely that new jobs will be created to meet the demand for more reusable bags. Moving away from onetime use items is great for the environment and ultimately better for society,” Schwarz says.

Other advocates point out that while there may be secondary uses for plastic bags, they are still thrown into the national waste stream after one or two additional uses. An estimated million plastic bags are consumed and placed in the global trash bin of oceans and landfills every minute, according to the Rolling Stone piece.

“The most important thing to understand is that while these bags may have been made from natural materials to begin with, they do not decompose like natural products any more,” says Los Angeles nature photographer and environmentalist Jolene Hanson, who is curator of G2 Gallery, which specializes in nature and environmental themes. 

Once they go into a landfill, “they take up to a thousand years to actually break down and fully decompose,” Ms. Hanson says. “That’s a pretty big difference from the way a tree or plant rots and returns to the earth.”

“This may not be a perfect law,” Hanson says. “But it is movement forward and some movement is better than none.”

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