Opponents of the nation’s first statewide ban on plastic bags have likely succeeded in forcing a referendum on the new state law, which could result in a $100 million windfall for bag manufacturers.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group funded by plastic bag manufacturers, submitted more than 800,000 signatures to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s (D) office Monday, well above the 504,760 signatures necessary to get the referendum on the ballot.
That referendum means California’s bag ban, passed last year and scheduled to take effect on July 1, will be delayed until voters can weigh in.
Hundreds of cities, counties and towns across the country have banned or imposed taxes on single-use plastic bags. California became the first state to do so in September when Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation, known as Senate Bill 270, into law. That law would require consumers to use reusable bags at the grocery store or buy paper bags for 10 cents each.
Plastics manufacturers say the law is the result of a backroom deal between California grocery store owners and labor unions aimed at padding the state’s coffers.
“SB 270 was never a bill about the environment,” said Lee Califf, who heads the American Progressive Bag Alliance. “We are pleased to have reached this important milestone in the effort to repeal a terrible piece of job-killing legislation.”
Plastics manufacturers began collecting signatures aimed at delaying the measure almost immediately, and they’ve already spent $3.1 million to do so; California ballot initiative campaigns typically hire paid signature gatherers, who can command up to $5 or $6 per signature, just to qualify a measure.
But the manufacturers will make their money back many times over. The 16-month delay in implementation will allow manufacturers to continue producing plastic bags until voters act. Sales of those plastic bags could amount to $145 million, according to one estimate from a group supporting the plastic bag ban.
“It is clear that the plastic bag industry is more interested in their own profits than reducing an unnecessary source of pollution and waste that threaten California’s wildlife and pollutes our ocean, coast, and our communities,” said Mark Murray, a spokesman for California vs. Big Plastic, another group supporting the ban.
Recent polling shows the plastic bag ban is popular in California. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed about six in 10 California voters backed the bag ban, while 35 percent oppose the law.
“It’s an uphill fight for the ban’s opponents, so they’ll need to take a general argument about government overreach and sharpen it into a more specific fight about taxes,” said Unruh Institute of Politics director Dan Schnur, who conducted the poll.
Still, there’s an expensive campaign ahead. After paying millions to make the ballot, initiative proponents have had to spend tens of millions of dollars to prosecute their cases. In 2012, supporters and opponents of measures that would have required labels on genetically modified foods and limited the abilities of unions to collect dues, among others, spent more than $350 million on campaigns. In 2014, two ballot initiatives relating to health insurance drew nearly $100 million in spending, for and against.
Even if the law is overturned by voters in 2016, many Californians won’t have access to plastic bags anyway. About 130 communities across the state already ban single-use bags, jurisdictions that cover more than 30 percent of the state’s population.