Opponents of the law banning single-use plastic bags — which is supposed to go into effect July 1 — collected more than 800,000 signatures when they needed only 504,760 to qualify for a referendum, according to representatives of the trade group American Progressive Bag Alliance.
“The industry obviously is opposed to this particular piece of legislation because it seeks to ban a 100 percent recyclable product and also put fees on consumers for other bag alternatives,” said Jon Berrier, spokesman for the Progressive Bag Alliance. “It’s all orchestrated as a cash grab by members of the California Grocers Association to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees, none of which goes to a public purpose.”
Ron Fong, the president and chief executive officer of the California Grocers Association, called the allegations of a cash grab a “tired argument” that plastic bag industry executives keep trying to recycle.
The law, SB270, “clearly states that any monies generated by the sale of paper bags must go toward cost recovery, training and educating the public on reusable bags,” Fong said, adding that there have been 90 percent reductions in the distribution of single-use bags in cities where similar ordinances have been passed. “The state Legislature didn’t buy this desperate argument and neither do Californians.”
The petitions, submitted on the last day of a 90-day signature-gathering deadline, must be checked against the list of registered voters in each county where they were collected before the referendum can be verified. If it qualifies, an outcome many observers believe is inevitable, implementation of the law would be delayed until after the referendum in November 2016.
“They are basically buying themselves a 15-month postponement,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste and the bag-ban campaign treasurer. “Honestly, it’s frustrating that California’s electoral process can be hijacked by out-of-state plastic-bag manufacturers.”
The postponement only affects areas of the state where there aren’t already plastic bag bans, Murray said. San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007, the first city in the nation to do so. There are now plastic bag bans in 130 California cities, including all of Marin, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
The bag backlash has been sweeping across the country mainly because the billion disposable plastic shopping bags a year that are thrown away find their way into storm drains, creeks and rivers that flow into the ocean. Scientists have documented a giant floating patch of plastic and other debris twice the size of Texas that has accumulated in an area of the Pacific Ocean known as the North Pacific Gyre.
The decision by Gov. Jerry Brown to enact the statewide ban, SB270, in September, came after a fierce legislative struggle. Lee Califf, the executive director of the Bag Alliance in Washington, D.C., called SB270, “a terrible piece of job-killing legislation.” The lobbying group has spent $3.1 million to fight the law, most of it from three out-of-state plastics companies led by South Carolina’s Hilex Poly, the largest plastic-bag manufacturer in the country.
The 13 billion plastic bags currently in California grocery stores generate $200 million a year in revenue for the industry, Murray said. The cities that have banned plastic bags generally charge 10 cents per customer for the use of paper or reusable bags, an amount Murray said doesn’t even cover the cost to grocers.
Under the law, grocery stores and pharmacies in California must phase out plastic bags by July, and convenience and liquor stores must get rid of the bags a year later.
“It’s not a scam, and it’s not anything that was orchestrated by the grocers,” Murray said. “This is part of a grassroots movement by hundreds of community organizations that decided it is time to stop using plastic bags.”
He said it is not the first time that out-of-state polluters have attempted to repeal a California environmental law.
“In 2010, out-of-state oil companies, along with the Koch brothers, spent millions on Proposition 23, an initiative that would have suspended AB32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act,” Murray said. “Voters soundly rejected that effort by polluters, and we are confident that, given the opportunity, voters will reject repeal of the plastic bag ban.”
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @pfimrite