California voters will decide next year whether to sustain a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags, and corporate interests that stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the ban are gearing up an effort to preserve it.
A trade association representing California grocery stores is bankrolling a ballot initiative committee to ward off the plastics industry’s challenge to the ban. Large grocery chains such as Safeway and manufacturers of alternatives to plastic grocery bags are also helping to finance the effort.
Both sides of the fight couch their positions in environmental terms. However, both also have significant financial interests in its outcome. While much attention has been paid to the plastics industry and its role in the policy fight, the financial interests of the bag ban’s supporters have received less scrutiny.
"The plastic bag industry has bought its way onto the California ballot to protect its profits," said Mark Murray, the chairman of California vs. Big Plastic, a ballot committee working to affirm the bag ban next November.
Supporters of the ban have their own financial interests at stake, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the plastics-backed political group pushing to overturn the ban.
Grocers frame their interest in the issue as one of regulatory simplicity. The ban provides "consistency and predictability for consumers," a spokesman for the California Grocers Association told the Los Angeles Times in 2013.
The APBA says it has a more direct—and lucrative—stake in the ban. The group commissioned a study last year that found the ban would steer as much as $440 million in new revenue to the California grocery industry through sales of paper and reusable bags.
Unlike many other bag bans, California’s provides a massive financial benefit to those grocers. In Washington, D.C., for example, revenues from the district’s tax on plastic bags go towards efforts to clean up the Anacostia River.
California’s new law mandates a minimum price of 10 cents for paper grocery bags sold on site. That revenue goes directly to the grocers. Together with on-site sales of reusable bags, grocers stand to make between $189 million and $442 million from the bag ban, according to the APBA.
That has created synergy between corporate and environmental supporters of the ban. Both types of groups have backed California vs. Big Plastic (CBP) in an effort to ward off the APBA-backed challenge.
California laws can be challenged by referendum by submitting petitions signed by at least fiver percent of the number of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election. APBA secured more than 800,000 signatures by December, far more than the 505,000 required to trigger a referendum.
APBA and CBP are two of four ballot committees working on the issue. The CGA has its own group, the Committee to Protect the Plastic Bag Ban, working on the issue. The association did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
In addition to its work on the referendum, CGA has contributed campaign funds to two of the bag ban’s legislative sponsors. It donated $3,000 to State Sen. Kevin de Leon’s reelection effort last year.
It also donated $8,300 to former State Sen. Alex Padilla’s successful bid for California secretary of state. In that position, Padilla certified the signatures to place the bag ban question on next year’s ballot.
CGA’s ballot committee provided a $100,000 cash infusion for CBP in February, which has also received $10,000 from three California-based reusable bag companies that stand to benefit from the ban.
Another of its major donors, Californians Against Waste, is a 501(c)(4) "dark money" group that is not required to disclose its donors, making it difficult to know whether it is backed by financial interests benefitting from the ban.
"The work of Californians Against Waste and our sister organization, Californians Against Waste Foundation is funded primarily by recycling stakeholders and individuals," its website says. The group did not respond to inquiries about its donors.
Only one of the three committees supporting the ban appears to be funded primarily by small-dollar donors. The group, Save the Bag Ban, has received 28 contributions, the largest of which was $600 from an Apple software developer.
The committee is run by Environment California, which works on a number of other green issues in the state. It touts the bag ban’s environmental benefits, but studies on available substitutes suggest that those benefits may be overstated.
David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon, maintains that plastic bags can actually be more environmentally friendly than paper ones. "If the most important environmental impact you wanted to alleviate was global warming, then you would go with plastic," he told a university publication in 2012.
Tyler used life-cycle emissions estimates to weigh the relative environmental impacts of the two types of products. Plastic bags perform quite well compared with alternatives, he said.
"There are really good things about plastic bags—they produce less greenhouse gas, they use less water and they use far fewer chemicals compared to paper or cotton. The carbon footprint—that is, the amount of greenhouse gas that is produced during the life cycle of a plastic bag—is less than that of a paper bag or a cotton tote bag," Tyler said.