The self-serving plastic bag props

Every few years, an industry for self-serving reasons tries to exploit California’s loose rules for putting propositions on its ballot.

This doesn’t usually work, even though industries that have tried this tactic when all else political had failed them generally outspent opponents by factors of at least 50-1.

So it was about 20 years ago, when the tobacco industry fielded an initiative aiming to remove all local smoking restrictions and substitute a much looser statewide standard allowing tobacco use almost anywhere.

That effort lost badly and remains a classic in the annals of misleading names for campaign committees. Big Tobacco’s campaign moniker: Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.

So it is again this fall with Propositions 65 and 67, as the plastic bag industry tries to reverse an almost total ban of its products from California grocery stores that passed the Legislature in 2014 and was quickly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The bag makers’ committee name isn’t quite as misleading as Big Tobacco’s, but the tag (the same as that of an industry-wide trade group) still obscures its purpose: American Progressive Bag Alliance. What’s a “progressive” bag?

Even with many local bans in place and applying to most of the state’s biggest cities and almost half its population, Californians still dump a reported 11 billion plastic bags into landfills yearly.

Countless others still “decorate” highways. These do not disintegrate or decay in water, like paper products, so they could be around for centuries. Plastic bags also are made from petroleum; their use contributed to America’s energy dependence on foreign sources, some of them unsavory.

Altogether the bag makers raised well over $4 million before the fall campaign, compared with barely a quarter-million for supporters of the bag ban. Most cash backing the ban has come from grocery chains like Albertsons Safeway (including Vons), Ralphs and Raley’s.

That caused a bag industry attempt to penalize grocers — who originally opposed banning plastic bags — for switching sides and helping cost the bag makers hundreds of millions of dollars yearly. Eastern and Southern companies like Superbag, Hilex Poly, Formosa Plastics and Advance Polybag lashed out by placing Proposition 65 on the ballot in an attempt to deprive grocers of even breaking even on the paper bags they sell for 10 cents each under the state’s 146 local bans on plastic bags.

Claiming the grocers only switched sides because they discovered the small bag fees add up to a big new source of revenue, the bag alliance wrote an initiative earmarking all money spent on bags for environmental projects supervised by the state Wildlife Conservation Board.

Trouble is, many supermarkets say they actually lose money on paper bags. One board member of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op reports, “Our paper bags cost us 14 to 15 cents each. It’s inaccurate to suggest it’s a revenue stream when it is still a major expense.”

Meanwhile, large grocery chains say they’ve converted to the anti-plastic side in large part because that’s what their customers want. “Early polling is that consumers are adapting to no plastic bags,” Ronald Fong, head of the California Grocers Association (contributor of about $210,000 to the pro-ban side), told a reporter. “It’s really unfortunate that out-of-staters are sinking millions of dollars into telling us we’re wrong here in California.”

But the bag association predicts it will win and overturn the statewide bag ban. “We believe voters…will make their voices heard at the ballot box,” the group’s president, Lee Califf, said in a statement. The statewide ban, he added, threatens thousands of jobs and will have “no meaningful effect on the environment.”

If jobs are threatened, of course, not many are in California. Big plastic bag makers don’t manufacture much here.

Any jobs threatened by a statewide ban are shaky anyhow. That’s because the existing local bans covering Los Angeles, San Francisco and 144 other locales would not change if the No-on-67 side wins and overturns the statewide ban.

No matter how obviously self-serving their two propositions may be, this is still likely a lose-lose proposition for the bag makers. The bottom line for them is that they stand no chance of restoring California to its former status as their largest market.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. For more Elias columns, visit  californiafocus.net.

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