Photo: Zainub Razvi

It was a historic moment. Back in September of 2014, after years of lobbying by environmental activists all across California, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 270, which banned single-use plastic bags in most stores across the state. The effect of this bill would be huge, as over 14 billion plastic bags were distributed in California in 2013, of which only five percent were recycled. The rest? Sent to landfills where they’d linger for centuries, or, too often, discarded in the state’s precious waterways and, ultimately, the ocean, where they suffocate marine life and even end up as dangerous microplastics.

California Governor Jerry Brown. (Image: business.ca.gov)

California Governor Jerry Brown. (Image: business.ca.gov)

Some were unhappy about this unabashedly pro-environment move. The plastics industry wanted nothing to do with this ban, which would cut off a huge source of income in the country’s largest economy. Despite the fact that plastic pollution is a well-documented problem, and that their abundance in the world’s oceans is nearing catastrophic levels, the industry is forcing Californians to revisit SB 270. After a multi-million dollar effort by the deceptively named American Progressive Plastic Bag Alliance (an industry front), the bill’s implementation was delayed, and the choice whether to keep the ban will be up to California voters this fall.

“This is not just a referendum on plastic bags, it’s a referendum on whether out-of-state special interests can hijack California’s ballot by spending…millions of dollars to undo a law the Legislature passed and the Governor signed,” said Steven Maviglio, spokesperson for Protect California’s Plastic Bag Ban, a coalition of environmental, business, consumer, labor groups and citizens.

More Plastic Than Fish by 2050

This should be a clear cut issue. Plastic is a major environmental problem that has been covered extensively at Planet Experts. Quite simply, there is too much cheap plastic being produced, and far too much of it is ending up in the wrong places. In fact, if we don’t do something soon, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

Moreover, look at who is for and against repealing the ban. On one side you have the plastic industry’s mostly out-of-state money, and, that’s about it. On the other side is nearly every major California environmental non-profit, community organization, many of the state’s political leaders, and, of course, the weight of scientific reality.

Plastic bag floating in lake in Washington, D.C. (Photo Credit: Mr. TinDC / Flickr)

Plastic bag floating in lake. (Photo Credit: Mr. TinDC / Flickr)

“Anytime that out of state business interests spend million of dollars to thwart the democratic process in the state of California, that’s a bad thing,” said Dan Jacobson, Legislative Director with Environment California, which supports the ban. “Using money to trick voters into voting no on this ballot measure is both dirty and deceptive.”

Of course, science does not matter to an industry focused on protecting its profits. Unfortunately, that means voters can count on a flood of deceptive advertising and campaign tactics from the plastics industry, with the goal of confusing Californian voters. It can be an effective tactic, as many analysts believe that when voters are unsure about an issue, they lean to voting no. In this case, a “no” vote on SB 270 would repeal the ban.

The lumpy gross thing on the pedestal was pulled out of a dead camel. Think about that, and think about all the plastic the fish you're eating ate in its lifetime. (Photo Credit: Rick Baraff)

A lump of half-digested plastic extracted from the stomach of a dead camel. (Photo Credit: Rick Baraff)

“This is going to be a David vs. Goliath campaign,” said Maviglio. “It’s critical for supporters to get engaged [if we are to] defeat the out-of-state corporations that want to repeal California’s landmark plastic bag ban.”

The state saw the impact of corporate money in 2012 with the most expensive ballot referendum in California history, proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO) ingredients in food. It was initially supported by a majority of Californians, but after an astounding $45 million was spent by corporations against it, it was defeated.

Will History Repeat Itself?

The plastics industry is hoping history will repeat itself, having already spent more than $4 million gathering signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. They’ll have their work cut out for them, since plastics are widely recognized as an environmental problem, and plastic bag bans (which already exist at the local level across California) enjoy far more support than GMO labeling ever did.

“More than half of California’s population lives with a plastic bag ban in their communities, so we are not as vulnerable to the scare tactics of our opponents,” said Maviglio. “We are confident that Californians will see through the lies of out-of-state plastic companies.”

Plastic waste. (Photo Credit: Zainub Razvi / Flickr)

Plastic waste. (Photo Credit: Zainub Razvi / Flickr)

Thankfully, advocates of the bill aren’t standing down, with Environmental California, for example, making this one of their primary efforts for 2016.

“We’ll be educating hundreds of thousands of people throughout the state…and urging them to vote yes to ban single use plastic bags in California,” said Jacobson, adding that they plan to do extensive outreach on college campuses, phone banking and door-to-door canvassing to build grassroots support.

One of the challenges is that SB 270 will be at the end of what will inevitably be a long California ballot. But voting yes may be one of the most important choices that voters can make this fall, not only for the environment and our oceans, but also for sending a strong signal to the plastics industry that their free ride is over.

“When California talks, the people listen,” said Jacobson. “California has set environmental trends, for clean cars, solar panels, helping to reduce global warming pollution, and this is just another way for California citizens to show support for the ocean and for the environment.”

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