The California Plastic Bag Ban Referendum is on the Nov. 8, 2016, ballot as a veto referendum, meaning “yes” vote would uphold and ratify the contested legislation (SB 270), while a “no” vote overturns it and keeps the bags legal statewide — except for in communities where there is a local law ban.
And in many places in California — 129 municipalities and counties, so far — there is a local law. And should SB 270 survive next November's vote, it would not supersede local laws passed before September 2014.
If ratified by voters in 2016, the law also would:
• Prohibit chain grocery stores and pharmacies from providing single-use plastic bags and add small grocery stories, liquor stores, convenience stores and mini-marts to the prohibition one year later.
• Impose fines of $1,000 per day for the first violation, $2,000 per day for the second and $5,000 per day for the third and subsequent violations of the ban.
• Mandate a 10-cent minimum charge for paper bags, to be paid to the store and require the paper bags are made with 40 percent post-consumer recycled content.
• Exempt from the bag fee any customer using state payment cards or vouchers, such as those who receive benefits from the California Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
• Allow thin-film bags or free small paper bags for prescription medication, dry cleaning bags and any bag “to contain an unwrapped food item,” such as bread, meat, produce or bulk foods.
• Provide $2 million in loans from the state to California-based plastic bag manufacturers to help retain jobs and transition to making thicker, multi-use, recycled-content plastic bags.
The law also would put stringent definitions on what bags are not acceptable in California. “Reusable” plastic bags would be defined as those rated for 125 uses and made of at least 20 percent recycled plastic at first, ultimately going up to 40 percent recycled content and be “capable of carrying 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet for a minimum of 125 uses and be at least 2.25 mils thick.”
Reusable fabric bags also would need to be rated for 125 uses, have handles and a tag providing extensive information on where the bag was made and what it was made of as well as be machine washable or otherwise able to be disinfected.
Paper bags would have to be made of a minimum of 40 percent post-consumer recycled materials.
For nearly a decade, coastal California environmentalists pressed legislators for a statewide ban on plastic bags. But even with liberal majorities in the state legislature, and the heft of environmental groups including Californians Against Waste (CAW), the Surfrider Foundation, Save the Bay and 5Gyres, it could not pass both chambers without other key supporters: grocery stores and their workers.
In fact, while the California State Senate passed the bill by a 22-15 vote on Aug. 29, 2014, the last day of the legislative session, an initial vote in the Assembly failed. But three days later, legislators, particularly then-Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacioma), the bill's author who now serves as California's Secretary of State and Sen. Kevin deLeon (D-Los Angeles), struck a deal that locked down the support of the California Grocers Association (CGA), which previously had been a key opponent of the bag ban, and the labor group representing grocery store workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
Now backed by CGA, the amended bill — which would funnel the 10-cent-per-bag minimum fee to the grocers rather than environmental groups or state litter and recycling programs — was approved and signed by Brown.
Estimates range from $700,000 to more than $1 billion in expected revenue to be generated from the 10-cent minimum fee retailers would be required to charge under the new law. Califf and APBA members say the fee will easily generate $400 million per year for grocers.
It's the potential fate of those funds that is adding yet another wrinkle to the bag ban fight, even this late in the referendum game.
Battle over fees
On Oct. 2, APBA filed a second ballot measure with the California Attorney General's office related to the fees. Califf and APBA members say a majority of Californians think that money should be serving the environment.
Tentatively called the Environmental Fee Protection Act, the ballot measure would send bag fee funds to the California Wildlife Conservation Board, which would distribute the money 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.
Bag ban supporters, including Californians Against Waste, are crying foul, equating the Environmental Fee Protection Act with flip-flopping on bag bans. CAW maintains that the grocers' support of SB 270 came about not because of the money they stand to gain, but as a sensible way to avoid a patchwork of 130 separate local bag ordinances across the state.
And even more anti-bag groups, including one named California vs. Big Plastic, have formed to fight both ballot measures.
APBA believes it will have no problem getting enough signatures to put the second proposed referendum on the ballot.
Pointing to a private poll, Califf said in an email to Plastics News last month: “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.”