Plastics Industry Attempts to ‘Manipulate the System’ with Competing Bag Ban Propositions

Even with the windows up, the sour stench of rotting food invades Michael Gross’ car. He drives slowly, slaloming towering piles of trash and mountains of food and household waste. We’re inside Zanker Recycling’s anaerobic digester in north San Jose, a aircraft hangar-sized building that takes all the food scraps from San Jose’s restaurants and grocery stores, removes overlooked recyclables and trash, and composts what remains.

Gross, Zanker's director of sustainability, stops his car by a pile of trash that has been separated from the compostables and will be buried at the nearby Newby Island landfill.

“If you start looking at what’s really in this,” he says, “it’s plastics.”

A dozen laminated Tesla press passes peek out from the damp, hellish mound. There’s a nest of styrofoam clamshells. Soggy plastic bags dominate: sandwich bags, black trash-can liners and a rainbow of slime-streaked takeout sacks. About 40 percent of the material that enters this anaerobic digester can’t be composted.

Gross drives past large chambers filled with varying stages of compost decay to our destination, where finished product is mixed with yard trimmings. Even these piles, which have been screened several times over, are laced with shreds of plastic.

“It’s just plastic bags, plastic bags, plastic bags,” Gross says. “And they’re not going to break down, they’re not going to go anywhere.”

These bags are a pestilence to all of Zanker’s four recycling sites. They get trapped in litter fencing. They clog and jam sorting machines. They tear into smaller and smaller pieces, drifting like confetti into piles of mulch, fertilizer and wood chips the recycling facility sells. They never go away completely, and removing them costs Zanker upwards of $655,000 annually. The city of San Jose pegged the figure even higher, estimating plastic bags cost recycling plants $1 million a year in jammed and broken machinery.

San Francisco passed the nation’s first plastic bag ban in 2007, San Jose followed in 2012 and more than 150 California jurisdictions now have a bag ban.

Nevertheless, Bay Area residents continue to use 3.8 billion plastic bags each year, of which more than a million end up in the San Francisco Bay. Ocean currents then carry them to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area one-and-a-half times the size of Texas choked with floating trash, most of it plastic.

To the relief of Gross, other recyclers and environmentalists, one of two propositions on the November ballot could make plastic bags in California a thing of the past. The other appears to have less noble intentions.

Proposition 67 calls for a referendum on a statewide bag ban passed in 2014, while Prop. 65 would redirect revenue from reusable bag sales to environmental purposes. Both were put on the ballot by the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), a group whose name conjures images of canvas-tote-wielding environmentalists but in actuality is a plastic manufacturers association that has spent more than $6.1 million—raised from five bag companies, only one of which is in California—to put both propositions on the ballot.

Known as the Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum, Prop. 67 calls for a referendum on Senate Bill 270, a law that created a statewide ban on the kind of single-use plastic bags once prevalent in pharmacies, grocery stores and corner markets. The bill also set a minimum 10-cent fee for recycled paper or reusable plastic bags, and allocates $2 million for jobs making and recycling reusable plastic bags.

South Bay state legislators Jim Beall, Bob Wieckowski and Nora Campos all voted in favor of SB 270 in 2014, but the legislation was put on hold after the Alliance gathered enough signatures to request a referendum. The bag ban would become state law with a majority of “yes” votes in November, while a majority “no” vote would leave California cities and counties to regulate the matter.

“The end goal of [Prop. 67] is to move consumers to reusable bags,” says Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the California Grocers Association.

While paper bags actually have a larger carbon footprint, plastic bags’ harm to the environment, especially waterways, is well documented. And while recycling is the solution to many consumption problems, plastic bags often aren’t accepted by curbside waste programs because they can’t be processed with other plastics. For this reason, Heylen explains, the California Grocers Association lobbied to pass SB 270 because they believe it will protect the environment and provide consistency for business owners and customers.

The Yes on 67 campaign has raised more than $3.5 million. Its single largest contribution was $150,000 from grocery giant Albertsons Safeway. Other top donors include the California Grocers Association, environmental nonprofit Save the Bay and Tom Steyer, an environmental advocate, major donor to Democratic causes and possible California gubernatorial candidate. Gov. Jerry Brown, the state Democratic Party, the Green Party and numerous elected officials, environmental groups and newspapers have endorsed Prop. 67. As of 2014, the last time polling was done, nearly 60 percent of voters supported the ban.

Heylen contends that these strong numbers spurred the APBA to put Prop. 65 on the ballot in an attempt to confuse voters and help out-of-state plastics companies “manipulate the system so they can get what they want.”

Jon Berrier, a spokesman for the APBA, disputes this characterization, arguing that Prop. 65 will prevent grocers from padding their wallets with millions in bag fees. SB 270 allows stores to keep proceeds from bag sales, as long as this money covers the cost of bags and customer outreach to comply with the legislation. But SB 270 doesn’t include oversight mechanisms to ensure store owners use the money as intended, and an APBA-commissioned report estimates that revenue from bag fees—at $0.10 per paper bag and $1 per reusable bag—could be between $189 and $442 million annually, depending on how much shoppers reuse bags.

“[SB 270] was a big special-interest giveaway to the members of the California Grocers Association, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year that they’ll be able to collect and receive profits on as the result of these bag fees,” Berrier claims.

Along with the APBA, the No on 67, Yes on 65 campaign is supported by the California Republican Party, Libertarian Party of California, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and a few manufacturing and labor organizations.

Heylen denies that Prop. 67 is about profit, as bags usually cost stores $0.08 to $0.15 each. Only retailers large enough to buy in bulk would see profits off 10-cent bag fees, he adds.

Supporters of Prop. 67 say the APBA put forward Prop. 65 to turn grocers against the bag ban. If both propositions pass, Prop. 65 would divert bag fee revenues into a trust fund administered by the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board. The money would be granted to various environmental projects, including drought mitigation, habitat restoration, recycling, clean drinking water, parks, beach cleanup and litter removal.

The California Grocers Association has not taken an official position on Prop. 65, but Heylen characterized it as meddling by out-of-state companies. There’s a lot at stake for the plastics industry: California represents between 10 and 14 percent of the country’s 100 billion-bag plastics market. Hilex Poly Co. LLC, a plastic bag manufacturer, has given 44 percent of the $6.1 million raised by the campaign to defeat the bag ban and support Prop. 65.

If both propositions pass and the bag ban receives more votes, grocers will get to keep bag fee revenues, as outlined in SB 270. But if both pass and Prop. 65 has a wider margin of victory, the ban likely would go into effect with bag fees diverted to the wildlife conservation fund.

California’s Legislative Analyst Office noted that if both props pass but 65 receives more votes, courts could interpret a vaguely worded clause as overruling the state’s bag ban. Berrier denies this would happen, saying it would simply nullify the part of Prop. 67 that allows grocers to keep bag fees.

Even if Prop. 65 doesn’t conceal dark intentions, it and the referendum on SB 270 still upset people like Gross, Zanker's sustainability director.

“We already had 150 communities in the state of California that had plastic bag bans,” Gross says. “It’s really the will of the citizens here.”


  1. Speaking of sneaky ballot propositions, I hope that the wise and sober people of California WON’T be taken in by Proposition 58, the “Non-English Languages Allowed” initiative. It’s promoted by the Teacher’s unions, SEIU, and assorted rag tag social justice warriors (SJWs)

    It’s trying to repeal Prop 227 which mandated English only in schools and reinstitute the divisive and failed “bilingual education”.

    Note HELL NO on this deceitful turkey.

  2. I recall when the argument (by the same enviro-groups) was that everyone should stop using paper grocery bags, based on the nonsense that it destroyed precious trees.

    Then the eco-crowd ratcheted up their false alarm, claiming that old growth redwood trees would be decimated. So they got their way; instead of using paper bags, we got plastic bags.

    Now they’ve re-directed their false demonizing onto plastic bags, by using bogus factoids like “…the Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. But on investigation, it turns out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an urban myth:

    So the plastic bag scare is just another enviro false alarm. But since they have to lie to convince voters to support their scam, that means they don’t have good arguments.

    Me, I like plastic bags. I use them to sift the treasures out of our cats’ litter box, so they get used twice. There are plenty of other uses for plastic bags, too. And anyone can see that plastic grocery bags decompose if they’re outside for a while. They’re designed that way.

    These do-gooder busybodies are constantly telling everyone what we can, or cannot, buy or use. But if there were credible and valid reasons to deny people the use of convenient, reusable bags, then they would use those arguments.

    None of their arguments is sufficient to deny consumers a choice. So if we’re going to be denied a choice in how we transport our groceries, they need to produce valid, convincing, honest, and verifiable arguments instead of trying to scare the public with urban myths.

    But the proponents of this bag ban base their argument on false ‘facts’, and on emotional scare stories fabricated by the eco-crowd. Their fake arguments, their baseless scares, and their lies are not convincing. None of it can withstand even mild scrutiny.

    Here’s a much better idea: these busybodies need to either provide verifiable, factual arguments — or do whatever they want with their own plastic bags, and leave the rest of us out of it. Because our grocery bags, whether they’re plastic or paper, are simply not the problem they claim.

    Rather, this is another brick in the wall, part of a non-stop attack on everyone’s freedoms — a little bit at a time. And the frogs don’t notice how hot the water is getting…

    • > Now they’ve re-directed their false demonizing onto plastic bags, by using bogus factoids like “…the Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. But on investigation, it turns out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an urban myth:

      I can testify that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” fable (actually, a “Floating Island of Plastic as big as the state of Texas north of the Hawaiian Islands”). was successfully used by the enviro-mythologists to pass the plastic bag ban in Los Gatos,.

      Historians can actually view the “Floating Island of Plastic” fib in glorious hardcopy simply be looking at the “testimony” in support of the bag ban in Los Gatos city archives.

      • The Great Pacific garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex, is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean discovered between 1985 and 1988. It is located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N.[1] The patch extends over an indeterminate area, with estimates ranging very widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area.

        The patch is characterized by exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.[2] Because of its large area, it is of very low density (4 particles per cubic meter), and therefore not visible from satellite photography, nor even necessarily to casual boaters or divers in the area. It consists primarily of a small increase in suspended, often microscopic, particles in the upper water column.

    • But hold on, SJI states the existence of “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch as fact in this report? Although no scientific report or any proof of its existence to support the existence of this supposed environmental disaster was included in this “story”, SJI chose to take the low road and its editors decided the hell with it, we need to fill space so throw in some more misinformation.
      So all of you who actually choose to use these unreliable so called Internet “news agencys” as a reliable fact checked news source, well, ignorance is bliss.

  3. My confusion is when they banned plastic bags because the bags were polluting our oceans and creeks. They started charging .10 per paper bag…only to start bagging in plastic, again. I asked a clerk why that was and I was told that if the bag is thicker, they can bag in them. Now, what difference does the thickness of the plastic bag make in NOT polluting our oceans and creeks? The thickness of the plastic bag is not going to make a difference or am I missing something? I suspected it was simply a ploy to start charging for bags–paper AND plastic.

  4. I urge people to use their eyes as they travel around CA. Do you see lightweight plastic bags hanging from trees and fences or blowing through the air in the wind? Generally, not so much. Then travel to a state or country that does not discourage plastic bag distribution and use, and you will notice the ubiquity of such bags. CA’s plastic bag ban works to make our homes’ yards, streets and parks cleaner and more pleasant for everyone.

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