At 7-years-old, Zoe Florence could hardly see above the podium when she approached the microphone to speak her mind in the Huntington Beach City Council Chamber. During an August meeting in 2011, then-mayor, Joe Carchio, had yielded the floor to public comment. “I’ve lived in Huntington Beach my whole life,” said Zoe, “and first I want to thank you for thinking about what plastic bags are doing to our coast and our city.” She went on to talk about the merits of a city ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and other retailers. Behind her stood two representatives from the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and to her left, 13-year-old Aimee Borgmeyer, clad head-to-toe in a suit made entirely of plastic bags, an effort to demonstrate the environmental impact of the convenience aspect of convenience stores and grocers.
After Zoe’s plea, it took the city (my hometown) two years to join countless other municipalities across the country in instituting a ban on single-use plastic bags. It was a win for environmentalism in an unlikely place.
It became a defining issue for Surf City. In 2012, Mayor Pro Tem Devin Dwyer became the first incumbent city councilman to lose a re-election race since 1996. He blamed his ‘yes’ vote on the ban for alienating his constituency.
In the 2014 city council race, candidate Mike Posey said in his official campaign statement, he would, “bring the plastic bag ban issue to the voters,” – one of two separate occasions Posey mentions the ban in his 242-word statement. Posey won a seat on the council, and took it upon himself to make it a centerpiece of his tenure.
The issue ultimately came to a head in 2015 when the city voted 6-1 to repeal the ordinance, the first municipality in the country to do so. Councilman Mike Posey was there, leading the charge, and according to the OC Register, it was the plastic bag issue that compelled him to run in the first place. “It was the most important issue to me,” Posey told the Register. “The ban has nothing to do with the environment. It has everything to do with a consumer’s freedom of choice.”
A handful of environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, fundamentally disagreed, and levied a lawsuit against the city that is still pending.
Come November 8, disputes like these on the local level across California may be moot.
In 2014, while Posey was deciding to run for City Council, California Governor Jerry Brown was signing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. Political maneuvering, though, resulted in delayed implementation. Now, the measure will be put to vote this year.
According to the Surfrider Foundation, large plastic corporations are seeking to misinform the public by injecting a similar line of thinking to that of Councilman Posey that bag bans, “[have] nothing to do with the environment,” or even that they’re bad environmental policy.
One such campaign, an initiative called Bag the Ban, is supported by a South Carolina company called NOVOLEX that’s one of the leading manufacturers of plastic bags in the country. They go so far as to say bans on plastic bags increase a community’s carbon footprint.
“Misguided bans and taxes on plastic bags could weigh down the economy, increase costs for consumers and small business, and leave a larger carbon footprint on the environment than alternatives,” says the campaign website. “Plus, plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable and reused by 90 percent of consumers.”
But these claims are unsubstantiated. On the other hand, numerous environmental impact studies have shown the negative effects of single-use plastic bags, and/or the positive effects of a ban. One such study, conducted by Aecom Technology Corp, found that plastic bags have a negative short and longterm impacts on marine ecosystems, solid waste management, global resource consumption and litter. Ironically, the 2011 economic impact report solicited by the city of Huntington Beach (again, the only city to repeal a plastic bag ban) highlights the positive environmental impact of a ban in detail. And the city of San Jose found a 76% reduction in creek and river litter, a 59% drop in park and roadside plastic bag litter, and a 69% reduction in plastic bag litter in storm drains following their plastic bag ban.
The kicker, of course, is plastic bag bans aren’t effective in reducing waste alone. That requires a shift in behavior on behalf of the consumer. According to a study conducted by the UK Environment Agency, reusable bags made from polyethylene need to be used four times, polypropylene 11 times, and cotton 131 times before they’re better for the environment than single-use plastic bags. In other words, consumers need to be trained to reuse grocery bags in order to have a positive impact. Yet it’s difficult to deny that a lack of availability of plastic bags and a charge for paper bags might force the issue vis-à-vis the wallet.
Environmental studies resoundingly show the potential of municipal bans, leaving plastic bag manufacturers backed into a proverbial corner. And what does one do when backed into a corner? Well, fight tooth and nail to survive, even if the methods to do so don’t make all that much sense. Case in point, an additional proposition that’s made its way onto the California ballot – Proposition 65.
Funded by plastic bag manufacturers, Prop 65 calls for setting up a fund that would collect all profits accrued from the tax and sale of paper bags in grocery stores that would ultimately be applied to environmental projects across the state. Some political analysts speculate this as an effort to divide environmental groups and grocery lobbies – both of which support the statewide ban.
California communities have made history on this issue. San Francisco was the first city in the country to institute a ban in 2007. Huntington Beach, the first city to repeal in 2015. Now, the entire state could make history as the first in the continental US to impose a ban statewide (Hawaii became the first in 2015, but unlike California it was done county by county). But with the millions already spent by plastic bag companies to dissuade the public from upholding the ban, its far from in the bag.
This article was originally published on The Inertia on October 12, 2016.