California Voters Saved the First Statewide Plastic Bag Ban

Washington state voters rejected a carbon tax, while a fracking ban passed in Monterey County, California.

(Photo: James David Phenicie/Getty Images)

Nov 9, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The nation’s first statewide ban on those flimsy plastic grocery bags will take effect in California, thanks to the defeat of an industry-backed ballot measure to overturn it.

As of Wednesday morning, 52 percent of voters had approved Proposition 67, upholding the state’s 2014 law ending the use of thin plastic shopping bags in supermarkets and larger grocery stores.

Conservation advocates have been increasingly seeking such bans at local and state levels across the country because the bags, which are made from petroleum and may take centuries to fully biodegrade, have become a major source of plastic litter and a hazard to wildlife. A study published in January by the group Ocean Conservancy identified plastic bags as one of the most hazardous types of plastic litter for marine mammals, which get tangled up in the bags or mistake them for prey and eat them.

“We have a coalition of over 700 groups, ranging from the California Grocers Association to the Sierra Club to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce,” in support of the law, said Steve Maviglio, a spokesperson for the Yes on 67 campaign. “One hundred fifty-one communities have local bans, so it became a better business practice to support the ban.”

Maviglio called Prop. 67 “a very deceptive manipulation of our electoral system by out-of-state plastics companies [to] prop up their business in the state for another year and a half.” He estimated that delaying enforcement of the law had allowed bag manufacturers to supply around 20 billion thin-film bags to supermarkets and grocers, with earnings of around $160 million.

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Jon Berrier, a spokesperson for the American Progressive Bag Alliance trade group, countered that a focus on thin-film plastic bags “ignores bigger threats” to the environment. He claimed that the switch to thicker, multiple-use plastic bags would increase the amount of plastic in California’s environment by up to 30 percent.

Another ballot measure backed by the alliance, which would have redirected the 10-cent bag fee from retailers and environmental education programs to a wildlife conservation fund, failed. Berrier said the measure was intended to highlight that the fee amounted to a giveaway to grocery operators in return for backing the bag ban. But Maviglio—who said he was on the board of directors of a medium-size independent grocery store in Sacramento—said that based on his experience, grocers were breaking even or losing money on the bag fee.

“The real motivation [was] twofold: First, to confuse the voters, because they’re asking voters to vote yes on this and no on 67,” he said. “The other fact is that they were essentially trying to screw the grocers who were supportive of [the statewide ban] after decades of opposing it.”

Among other environment-related ballot measures around the country:

Voters defeated a constitutional amendment in Florida, backed by power utilities, that would have undercut expansion of rooftop solar power in the state.

Washington state voters rejected a carbon tax of $15 per metric ton on greenhouse gas emissions, which was aimed at lowering the state’s spew of the heat-trapping pollution.

In oil-rich Monterey County, California, voters banned fracking and other extraction methods, as well as new oil wells in the county.