Supporters of California's ban on single-use plastic bags could be in for a few surprises if their referendum passes.
Analysis shows that the ban — which also would allow stores to charge at least 10 cents each for larger, thicker reusable plastic or paper bags — would actually result in a 30 percent increase in plastic consumption statewide. Moreover, the move could wreak havoc on shoppers and retailers for the holiday season with state-approved bags in short supply or even non-existent in a state of 24.5 million people.
While many jurisdictions in California have enacted their own, local bag ordinances, about two-thirds of the state has not yet taken action on plastic bags. If the statewide ban, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 but quickly added to the 2016 ballot by petition as Proposition 67, is approved by voters, retailers could find themselves and their bag supply chain unprepared for the change, according to a report by Mark Simpson, an independent market analyst based in San Diego.
“The analysis shows that if behavior in the newly regulated areas matches the behavior in the currently regulated areas, there will likely be a shock in the marketplace affecting shoppers, retailers and suppliers,” Simpson wrote. “This protracted period of bag shortages or stock outs would significantly impact retailer performance and shopper experiences across the state during the 2016 holiday season and beyond.”
Less means more?
Bag bans already in effect all over the country and in more than 150 cities and counties in California show that bans or fees reduce plastic T-shirt bag consumption slightly, but a significant majority of shoppers are still willing to pay for bags.
But will they be available? Simpson doubts it.
“By my research, it would likely require a three to four month lead time in procurement and manufacturing, if the capacity exists, with North American suppliers, and longer for foreign suppliers due to minimum eight-week transit times, to build the initial inventory of paper retail and reusable bags required to supply the stores not currently under bag regulation,” Simpson wrote.
The anticipated shortage of paper, California-approved thick-film bags and traditional reusable bags will start with the Thanksgiving grocery shopping season and likely last into 2017, Simpson predicts.
Phil Rozenski, policy chair for the American Progressive Bag Alliance and director of sustainability for paper and plastic bag maker Novolex, expects plastic consumption to increase by about 30 percent to produce the larger, 2.25-mils-thick bags, and an increase in paper bag consumption as well.
“This is a situation where it is possible that 10 to 12 percent of the U.S. population will have to change their shopping habits overnight,” Rozenski said. “That's just not something that's ever happened before.”
When it passed as SB 270, the law was set to allow retailers and grocers to keep the money they collected from the bag fee, to offset the cost of stocking more paper bags and more expensive reusable plastic ones. But without the law in place, stores don't have the funds and don't seem to be moving toward the possible bag change with their holiday orders. Moreover, an additional referendum, Proposition 65, would direct those funds to state environmental programs instead. Proposition 65 has the support of 57.6 percent of voters, according to an August poll.
“Everyone is talking about the vote, how they're going to vote, but not what they're going to do about it or what's actually going to happen after,” Rozenski said.
An inconvenient effective date
According to California state law, if Proposition 67 passes, the bag ban will go into effect at midnight on Nov. 9, the day after it is approved by voters.
A court could issue a stay for all or part of the law, temporarily halting the ban and fees, if “a party that would be harmed by the immediate enforcement of SB 270” asked for an injunction, said California's Legislative Council Bureau, in a Sept. 7 letter from Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine to Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach). The court would have “broad discretion” with such a move, according to the letter.
The National Center for Policy Analysis calls bag bans “a conundrum for environmental groups,” as they have the potential to help the environment but also hurt retailers and their employees.
Los Angeles County's 2011 bag ban required stores to submit quarterly reports to the Public Works Department detailing how many paper bags were sold, how much money was collected and a “summary of any efforts taken to promote the use of reusable bags.”
Business located in the area where ban was in effect experienced a decline in sales, while retailers not subject to the ban saw sales increase by more than 3 percent.
“While every store inside the ban area was forced to terminate some of its staff, not a single store outside the ban area dismissed any staff. Stores inside the ban area reduced their employment by more than 10 percent. Stores outside the ban area increased their employment by 2.4 percent,” the group reported.