It looks like California voters will get to decide for themselves if the state will ban plastic bags.
Supporters of a referendum on the issue, led by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, turned in more than 800,000 signatures on petitions before the Dec. 29 deadline — apparently more than enough to put the issue on the November 2016 ballot.
That seems like poetic justice, to actually let the people decide this issue that's been so hotly debated in the California legislature for so many years. Several times in the past decade it appeared that a bag ban was inevitable, only to have it fall just short.
In 2014 the situation was reversed — it looked like the bag ban legislation was going to die in committee. But then, after a last-minute deal, it resurfaced and passed by a slim margin.
Regardless of how you or I feel about a ban, it seems ingenuous to me for either side to claim to represent the will of the people. This is a debate between special interests, to be sure, and there are convincing arguments to be made on both sides. The truth is we don't know how the public will vote on the issue. They haven't been given the opportunity.
For the next 22 months, you can be sure that supporters and opponents will do their best to tell voters how they should feel about plastic bags.
The optimist in me says this is a great opportunity for plastics. The industry has some strong and positive messages to share:
• On the sustainability, cost-effectiveness and convenience of plastic packaging.
• On the recyclability of plastics and the growing infrastructure and improving track record for recycling plastic film.
• On the size and importance of the plastics industry, and indeed of the manufacturing sector, in the still-recovering U.S. economy.
• On efforts to seriously deal with litter and marine debris.
Still, there's a pessimistic side of the issue too.
This debate may further tarnish the reputation of plastics. When I see it framed as a contest between “Big Plastic” and the environment, I shudder. Plastics and the environment are not enemies. In many ways they are allies — at least they should be!
If the industry can convince voters that plastics are synonymous with energy and resource conservation, and recyclability, it will go a long way to defeating the bag ban in California and slowing the progress of more anti-plastics legislation around the world.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”