The environmental movement in California is teetering on the edge of a slippery slope.
California is at the forefront in the fight against the proliferation of plastic pollution. But it earned that recognition despite a legislative culture in Sacramento that has been unable to pass meaningful environmental measures to address the problem of single-use plastic.
Now the Legislature is considering Senate Bill 270 (Padilla). Hyped with great fanfare as a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, it is nothing of the sort. The proposed bill is exclusionary in scope and only applies to large supermarkets, pharmacies, and smaller convenience food stores with liquor licenses.
All other retail stores in California that presently distribute single-use plastic bags -- including restaurants -- will be exempt from regulation under the proposed bill. Those stores will remain free to distribute disposable plastic bags that indiscriminately litter and pollute our environment.
Under the proposed legislation, plastic bags that provide no benefit to our society will remain a nuisance to our planet. That's because SB 270 has not been written to protect the environment; it's not a plastic bag reduction bill -- it's a plastic bag production bill.
Marked Down, Sold Out, In the Bag
Politicizing the environment makes for bad government and pandering to a special interest constituency is no justification for trading the benefit and betterment of our environment for the privilege and profit of a select few.
In a flurry of not quite ready for prime time political theatre, the authors of SB 270: Senators Alex Padilla, Kevin de Leon, and Ricardo Lara, appeared at a hastily organized press conference which you can watch here to announce a compromise they described as a win-win-win for the environment, the plastic industry, and grocers.
But that compromise is nothing more than a deal with the plastic devil - a wholesale sellout of the environment that will keep us all in the plastic industry's bag for years and years and years to come.
The Senators held their event at Command Packaging, a plastic bag manufacturer owned by Pete Grande. Mr. Grande is a plastic man, he sees green, but it is the color of money that really drives his agenda thanks to a cheap disposable plastic bag that Grande manufactures and hopes to get us all hooked on with the help of SB 270.
Litter Reduction, Water Quality, Environmental Protection
SB 270's authors claim that their bill is a matter of statewide interest and concern; but what exactly is that interest and concern?
Notably absent from SB 270 are any findings or declarations to explain the public policy behind the bill and why we need it. There is no mention of litter reduction, water quality or environmental protection anywhere in the bill.
Terms such as: pollution, trash, ocean, creeks, streams, rivers, waterways, beaches, parks, playgrounds, neighborhoods, communities, Clean Water Act, wildlife, marine life, and quality of life, are nowhere to be found in this bill. Instead, the bill focusses on financial incentives to produce more plastic bags.
Also absent from the bill are any provisions for monitoring the bill's effectiveness reducing litter and pollution from plastic bags, or any significant increase in recycling them. Right now there is no data to support SB 270's basic premise that simply making a single-use plastic bag a little bit thicker will result in a change in behavior.
In a similar bill carried by Senator Padilla last year (SB 405), there was a provision for a report back to the Legislature to measure the bill's effectiveness with respect to litter reduction, water quality and environmental protection. At the last minute, Padilla dropped that requirement from the bill and apparently he isn't interested in any accountability in his new bill either.
Bring Your Own Bag
We have become a throw-away society, dependent on single-use, disposable plastic for convenience; but at what cost? Will SB 270 change behavior for the good or reinforce it for the bad?
The goal of local bring your own bag campaigns has been to encourage shoppers to be sustainable, self-sufficient, and to bring their own reusable shopping bags from home; not to continue to rely on stores always having cheap disposable paper or plastic bags to provide to us at little or no cost at checkout.
California uses an estimated 14 billion single-use plastic bags a year (about 53,000 tons of regulated plastic carryout bags), but less than 5 percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled. (http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/plastics/atstore/AnnualRate/2009Rate.htm)
Simply calling a plastic bag "recyclable" or "reusable" or "smarter" and slightly increasing the thickness of these plastic bags will do nothing to change current consumer habits, and unless there is a mandatory fee on both recycled paper and reusable plastic bags, nothing will change -- every bag handed out for free becomes a disposable bag.
Mark Murray of Californians Against Waste has praised SB 270, saying it creates the standards and incentives for the manufacture of a "California Reusable Bag" -- but is that what we really want or need? For the sake of convenience are we really going to institutionalize and codify a thin, disposable plastic bag into the fabric of our society; or make it a symbol of progress in our State?
"... one should be aware of the fact that developing more "litter-friendly" materials will send the wrong signal to people. It will be quite contradictory to the many attempts made to change behaviours. If contaminating the environment with "litter-friendly" waste is considered acceptable, it will be very difficult to draw the line and accomplish any consistent change in attitude and behaviour." UNEP 2005: Marine Litter, an analytical overview at p. 8
It is not enough to just say that a reusable plastic bag is a good thing for the environment simply because it is made from recycled plastic. Recycled plastic can be used to make many useful, durable products -- but a 2.25 mil thick plastic grocery bag as defined in SB 270, is not one of them.
Let Communities Protect Themselves
The success California has experienced encouraging shoppers to bring their own reusable bags has been a result of efforts by local grass roots environmental groups and thousands of individuals dedicated to making our communities, our state, and our tiny blue planet, a better place to live.
That is what is making a difference in California -- not the lobby driven, special interest Legislature.
If SB 270 is signed into law by Governor Brown, disposable plastic bags will continue to proliferate and litter our environment, and local communities will be helpless to do anything about it; unless proposed preemption language declaring that SB 270 covers the entire field of regulation of single-use plastic bags in California, is stricken from the bill.
It doesn't make sense to acknowledge that single-use plastic bags are an environmental problem; a threat to our health, our quality of life, and our natural resources; but only ban the distribution of some of these bags in some of the stores in all of our communities.
The right of citizens to enact local ordinances to end the distribution of single-use plastic bags at all retail stores in their communities should be protected -- not preempted.
Golden State or Plastic State
The core principles that environmental advocates have fought so hard for these last few years are in danger of being sold out by the three Senators from Southern California.
The State of California needs to pass a real, comprehensive ban on ALL single-use and disposable plastic bags because the cost to the environment, our quality of life, and the health of us and our children is just too high if we don't.
Unfortunately, SB 270 appears to be just another special interest deal that will do more harm than good.
As well-meaning and good intentioned as some of the leaders of California's major environmental organizations are in supporting SB 270, the unintended consequences may well tarnish the optimism of the moment.
If SB 270 becomes law, the environmental movement in California will be marginalized; and the gains of the present and the promise of the future, will be trivialized for years to come -- trumped by an economy which is apparently dependent on the production, sale, and continued use of plastic bags in California.
"Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere -- there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere." Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme
Pete Grande of Command Packaging says: "The discussion of whether we need or want plastics is a moot point. We all need plastics. We all love plastic. We want plastic."
I disagree with Mr. Grande's vision of our future and I hope the majority of Californians do too. We don't need more plastic, we need to think beyond plastic, and we need to do it now!