The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has succeeded in buying the votes of several California senators, effectively quashing the ban of single-use plastic bags this past Tuesday, September 1.
At least that’s how the 21-14 defeat in California State Senate appears.
The definitive decision came after months of hard work, activism and financial contributions from both sides. The ACC, whose members include Exxon Mobil Corporation and plastic bag and film manufacturer Hilex Poly Company, took on Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, the bill’s author, and various environmental groups who led the fight to end California’s damaging dependency on plastic bags.
Despite Brownley’s powerful group of supporters, which included the California Grocers Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the California Labor Federation and the California Retailers Association, it just wasn’t enough to push the ban through.
“This is a sad day for California,” said Brownley in a statement the following Wednesday. “But, this is an environmental movement that won’t be stopped, even by big-money interests like the American Chemistry Council.”
Looking back, though, it wasn’t a fair fight. Supporters of the ban faced an overwhelming obstacle: money. The ACC’s generous campaign contributions, which began in January 2009 and continued steadily ever since, seriously impeded any forward movement of this environmental bill. The ACC donated a total of $20,000 to senators and city council members, as well as the California Democratic Party. In fact, Senator Sam Blakeslee (R-15) received $5,000 from the ACC and Exxon combined. But it didn’t stop there.
Exxon also invested an additional $15,000 to several senators as campaign donations and gave a blanket donation of $10,000 to the California Republican Party. Senators on the payroll included Roderick Wright (D-25), Dennis Hollingsworth (R-36), Bob Huff (R-29), Robert Dutton (R-31), Lou Correa (D-34) and Ron Calderon (D-30), all of whom voted against the ban.
Senators Tony Strickland (R-19) and Leland Yee (D-8) were also given campaign stipends, however Yee, who represents San Francisco—the first US city to ban plastic bags in 2007—voted in favor of the ban and Strickland didn’t vote on the issue at all. Senator Blakeslee also declined to vote.
Senator Lois Wolk (D-5), who has an exemplary background of voting in favor of environmental policies but uncharacteristically voted no on the ban, received a $2,500 donation from Hilex Poly in June. She stated she wanted to see incentive programs put into place before resorting to mandates.
While disappointment is the resounding feeling among ban supporters, defeat is not an option. The effort is far from over and many believe this is just a bump in the road.
“It’s not a matter of if,” said Brownley, “but a matter of when consumers bring their own bags and become good stewards of the environment.”
For information on what can be done to help this movement, check out Environment California, an environmental advocacy organization that focuses on overcoming powerful special interest groups. Also look at the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting our oceans that has a chapter located here in San Diego.
Plastic Bags: A History
During the last 50 years, the plastic bag has made quite a mark. They were first used to carry perishables in the late 1950s and it wasn’t until 1977 that the plastic grocery and shopping bag was introduced. It began under the premise that they were a far superior environmental alternative to paper bags, and, if compared solely on a manufacturing level, they are. In fact, one gallon of water is needed to make one paper bag, and more than 14 million trees are cut down in order to supply the United States with enough bags for one year. In comparison, plastic bags are made from 80 percent polyethylene, a natural gas that is currently still in abundance.
But despite the so-called benefits of the plastic bag, the sheer quantity in which they are produced poses a serious threat to the environment. Every year, between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide, almost 80 percent of which is by North America and Western Europe. Of that 500 billion, Americans use approximately 380 billion plastic bags each year, which equals about 1,200 bags per person. Less than one percent of these bags are recycled, according to the California Statewide Waste Characterization Study completed in 2008.
The process of recycling a plastic bag is extremely expensive. It costs $4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags, whereas to buy the same amount brand new only costs $32. Due to the misconception that the bags could not be recycled, it wasn’t until the 1990s that consumers were encouraged to do so. Today, more than half of the large department and grocery stores in the US provide recycling bins in which people can drop off their used bags.
This changing mindset has helped, especially since it takes an estimated 1000 years for a single plastic bag to disintegrate. This means every plastic bag ever made—and every piece of plastic for that matter—is still somewhere on the earth today.
A study done in the mid 1970s by the National Academy of Sciences stated that 8 million pounds of plastic were dumped into the ocean by ships every year. Over time, the ocean currents have concentrated much of this pollution into an artificial island known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This formation is located in the central North Pacific Ocean and estimated to be larger than the state of Texas.
While the figures are debated, it is estimated by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, Calif. that more than 1 million birds and 100,000 marine animals die every year from exposure to plastic pollution. Turtles, sperm whales and dolphins often mistake plastic bags for their favorite foods, such as jelly fish and squid. If they don’t die from choking, they often die from starvation because the indigestible material gives them the sense of being full. Sometimes animals will get tangled in the bags and drown. Furthermore, when the dead animals have decomposed, the pollutant is released back into the environment and left to cause more damage. Since their advent, it is estimated the plastic bag has caused the death of over 200 different species.
And the damage has been global due bag’s worldwide popularity. Before Ireland imposed a tax on them 8 years ago, a total of 1.2 billon plastic bags were used each year, equaling 316 bags per person. And in countries that haven’t imposed such a tax, the rates remain high. For example, in Lima, Peru, a city that is home to 9 million habitants, an estimated 7.2 billion plastic bags are used annually, adding up to 780 bags per individual.
Residents of Australia use almost 7 billion plastic bags every year, equaling 326 per person. The Australian Department of Environment estimates that almost 50 million of those bags end up as litter. In various places throughout Africa, the excessive plastic bag litter has prompted the nickname “national flower,” and in parts of China the discarded plastic bag is such a common sight it is referred to as the “white trash.”
While the numbers are staggering, the social awareness that is forming offers the environment a steadily growing reprieve. Every year, environmental groups and progressive politicians help to advance forward thinking bills like AB 1998. San Francisco, Palo Alto, Fairfax, Oakland, Manhattan Beach and Malibu already have bans in place. On a global scale, China, Switzerland, Germany, Scotland, the United Kingdom, Israel and Holland have all imposed taxes on the plastic bag, and certain cities in India and Bangladesh have banned their use completely. Currently, South America, South Africa, Mexico and American Samoa are all in the process of establishing bans and restrictions.