Friday, September 5th, 2014

The California Bag Ban and a Lesson on How Not to Legislate

By Lee Califf, Executive Director, American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA)

The California State Senate approved SB 270 last week, sending a fee on paper bags and the nation’s first statewide ban of plastic bags to Governor Jerry Brown (D) for consideration. Several environmental groups have all but danced in the streets to celebrate the bill’s advance, despite the fact that:

  • plastic bags comprise less than a half of a percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream and banning them will have little, if any, effect on reducing litter;
  • plastic bag production generates 80 percent less waste and requires 70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper counterparts; and
  • plastic retail bags are 100 percent recyclable, reusable and made with American natural gas, an environmentally-friendlier alternative to other fossil fuels.

But each of these facts obscures a bigger point about the legislative process that brought SB 270 to Governor Brown’s desk: this so-called “environmental” legislation never had anything to do with the environment.

The Bag “Bargain”

In the process of making environmental policy choices, it often doesn’t take long for the discussion to veer away from the scientific and toward the emotional. Broad considerations for the planet’s future touch deep ideological nerves, so this makes sense, but it can often stifle conversations about actual science, as well as the real environmental ramifications of the policy proposal.apba logo_2012

Recognizing this, proponents of SB 270 decided never to entertain the very good environmentally-friendly reasons to vote against the bill, some of which are outlined above, but instead stood on the assumed truths that have similarly derailed so many other policy discussions. Furthermore, money spoke louder than environmental imperatives or the supposedly inherent evil of plastics, as supporters of the bill made grocers and unions an offer they couldn’t refuse: support SB 270 and we’ll direct the fees collected from the paper bags to you.

The Future

The bill’s lack of real environmental bona fides, along with its enactment via back-room deal, should lead anyone to scoff at the suggestion that SB 270’s success will somehow amount to a win, for any constituency, environmentally-focused or otherwise. For them it’s a symbolic victory, and while they’re celebrating the nation’s only statewide bag ban, all the baggage that comes with this deal isn’t commendable.

In many ways, the bill effectively scams consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees. It’s a tax, of sorts, but typically taxes go back into state coffers to further benefit the public. In SB 270’s case, the fees collected from consumers won’t be used to pay for a road, a fire truck, a better school or even a marginal environmental benefit; they’ll be used to line the pockets of California grocers.

California has created a prime example of how not to legislate (fleecing consumers and damaging the state economy, all in the name of an imaginary environmental benefit), and other states might not be too eager to follow in California’s footsteps for that very reason, as well as some additional legal concerns. Most states probably won’t be willing to put this kind of fee on bags and give the money to grocery stores, and even if they were willing to do so there are some serious constitutionality questions about that. In effect it’s a tax that’s not going to the government. The private interest gets the money.

But on a more basic level, most states also wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, want to enact a tax on their citizens that essentially amounts to a form of corporate welfare for grocers, all while threatening the state’s economy. SB 270 puts 2,000 Californians that are employed at risk of being unemployed, all for the sake of a dirty deal between California grocers and union bosses. APBA stands with those workers, and with all Californians, as we continue to fight this dangerous and misguided piece of legislation.

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