Plastic bag manufacturers are taking steps to get a second ballot proposal before California voters, who will go to the polls in November 2016 to decide whether to uphold a statewide ban on plastic shopping bags.
Under a newly filed ballot initiative, voters could also be asked to direct any fees retailers collect for compostable and reusable bags to an environmental fund for projects like drought mitigation, recycling or beach cleanups. The current ballot measure allows retailers to keep those fees, which would be a minimum 10 cents per bag.
Calling the first ballot question to repeal or ratify SB 270 a potential “billion dollar giveaway to grocers,” the American Progressive Bag Alliance filed the second ballot measure with the California Attorney General's office on Oct. 2. Members of the APBA estimate bag fees will generate up to $400 million a year for grocers while a vast majority of Californians — 84 percent by their count — believe the money should go to a public purpose.
“So we want to make sure voters have the power to actually put bag fees to work for the environment and their communities should SB 270 become law,” Lee Califf, executive director of the APBA, said in an emailed statement.
The second ballot measure, which is tentatively called the Environmental Fee Protection Act, would send bag fees to the California Wildlife Conservation Board, which would distribute the funds as environmental grants. APBA says the money could go to “worthy” goals, such as remediating drought-stricken forests, restoring wetlands, and paying for recycling, litter removal and habitat restoration.
APBA opposes bag bans, fees and taxes as a threat to 30,800 manufacturing and recycling jobs in the United States, and questions the environmental benefits of replacing single-use plastic bags with other bags. In California, Califf said SB 270 is a giveaway to grocers under the guise of environmentalism and its stated intent to rid that state of plastic bags is contradicted by a loophole that allows grocers to distribute thicker plastic bags to customers for a 10-cent fee.
California lawmakers passed the bag ban in 2014 and it was to go into effect in July 2015. However, APBA collected some 800,000 signatures to put the ban to a vote of the people on Nov. 8, 2016. Now the trade group wants to give voters another option.
“Our industry is proud to give California voters a chance to overturn a deeply flawed, job-killing law, or at least, ensure bag fees are dedicated to helping the environment instead of increasing grocer profit margins,” Califf said.
State officials have 65 days to review the proposed ballot measure and issue the official title and summary before APBA can launch a signature-gathering drive to place it before voters along with the other ballot question.
In the meantime, supporters of the bag ban are questioning APBA's motives. The second ballot effort is either an admission of defeat in repealing SB 270, a ploy to confuse voters, or political mischief, Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said in a telephone interview.
Murray said the ballot proposal APBA submitted to state officials last week is similar to one that the trade group spent about $3 million defeating in Seattle in 2008.
“What's changed?” Murray asked. “How do they go from spending millions to oppose a bag tax to now saying they're prepared to spend millions of dollars to advance a bag tax? It doesn't really seem credible.”
Murray does not think grocers stand to profit from the ballot measure already approved for next year.
“They certainly stand to gain by no longer having to subsidize single-use plastic or single-use paper bags at the store, so there's a cost saving for grocers,” Murray said. “But I'm not sure there's a penny in new revenue for them because they still have to buy paper bags.”
Grocers were early opponents of the bag ban, he added, but they got behind the measure because it creates a uniform statewide policy.
“We're seeking a yes vote to affirm the law for environmental reasons,” Murray said. “I think the grocers will continue to seek a yes vote because they want a uniform statewide policy. If the law is overturned, the retailers are stuck with a patchwork of 140 local plastic bag bans in California.”
Murray doubts that the second bag proposal will make it onto the ballot. He said it is up for public comment and then revisions would likely be made. It would be early December before the signature drive can begin and the outcome would not be known until June.
“It only cost $200 to take the step they've taken,” Murray said. “It's not real until they have to actually start gathering signatures. Maybe they just want people to have the conversation we're having right now.”
APBA believes it will have no problem getting enough signatures to put the proposed referendum on the ballot.
Pointing to a private poll, Califf said in an email: “We are confident in our ability to gather signatures, especially given that 84 percent of California voters believe that bag fees in general should go to a public purpose instead of increasing profit margins for grocers.”