Who Says Money Can’t Buy Happiness? (The defeat of the plastic bag ban)

by on September 6, 2010 · 11 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, Organizing

sacto-capitolby Annie Lane

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

plastic bagslandfill
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.

plastic bag kids pledgeAnd 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.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Sparling September 6, 2010 at 11:53 pm

What a non-surprise. Money buys political thought and action every time.


Diane5150 September 7, 2010 at 12:54 am

WE’re doomed!


sgbooth September 7, 2010 at 6:10 am

While we need better solid waste solutions, the costs of recycling vs. production of new bags cited in this article is incorrect. It costs less than 50 cents per pound to recycle plastic bags. The raw material costs involved in new plastic bag production is roughly the same. Markets tend to even things out as long as there is demand and there is demand for recycled content in plastic bags.


doug porter September 7, 2010 at 7:53 am

Bravo! Excellent job of reporting. Thank you for you effort.


Jon September 7, 2010 at 9:30 am

Give me convenience or give me death!


annagrace September 7, 2010 at 11:58 am

We are being played for suckers if we believe that the failure of the ban on plastic bags is a victory for jobs and consumer choice. Lies. Damned lies. Annie mentions Hilex Poly Company in her excellent article. There are a few facts worth noting about this company’s “defense” of jobs. In 2007 Hilex Poly closed its plant in Rancho Cucamonga CA and laid off 120 workers. It also closed plants in Texas and Mississippi and laid off workers there. These closures occurred as a reorganization after HPC bought Vanguard Plastics in 2005, thus making it the largest plastic bag manufacturer in the world. The company doesn’t really care about jobs- it cares about its bottom line.

The defeat of the bag ban is just the warm up for what lies ahead in the upcoming elections. The Tea Party lovin’ billionaire Koch brothers are bankrolling a free market freak show in California, again under the rubric of “saving jobs.” They will be pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to pass Prop 23. The passage of this proposition would suspend efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses in the state. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/04/billionaire-koch-brothers_n_705737.html


Annie Lane September 7, 2010 at 11:21 pm

The failure of the ban was a hard thing for me to wrap my mind around, as I firmly believe we need to start changing the way we operate – and soon. Insurance companies, big oil, and plastic manufacturers are no longer happy making millions – they need to be making several hundreds of millions. Why? Because it’s possible.

It’s a sad state of affairs, really. We have the technology to make biodegradable plastic bags and yet, despite the ACC’s alleged interest in reaching a compromise, they haven’t said a peep about any such plans. Instead, they’ve spent the last few months implementing fear-mongering tactics and, yes, protecting their bottom line.

Examples: The ACC claimed they were looking after the Grocers Association’s best interest, stating the ban would be detrimental to business as it restricted consumer choice. I guess the fact that the Grocers Association was in support of the ban didn’t mean anything.

The ACC also funded a study that stated reusable bags were contaminated by E. Coli and other bacteria when meat juices leaked into them, causing consumers to become ill. Oddly, there haven’t been any recorded cases of illnesses relating to this type of exposure.

With so much money at their disposal, the ACC also employed the use of sensational advertisements like this one:

(For a flip-side look, this mockumentary is a must-see:

There was also the argument of lost jobs and and even further disadvantaging low-income people despite the fact that the ban had amendments in place to provide job-retraining programs and to offer free bags to consumers using food stamps.

The only positive thing about so much money being spent to impede the success of this ban is the fact that the ACC (and its associated companies) viewed it as something to be taken seriously – a real threat. This can only mean a momentum is growing, and that one day it’ll be far bigger and ultimately unstoppable.


Dianna Cohen September 11, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Thanks to the ACC, awareness about this issue of plastic bags and plastic pollution has risen ten fold. A fire has been ignited. Now, communities all across the state of california are inacting their own Banning of the Bag.




OB Joe September 13, 2010 at 9:53 am

What I liked about this article is that it did not end in despair and gave us hope that someday the ban will be back with gusto.


Collins Pt September 21, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Very informative!!

In recent times, the world is becoming cognizant about the hazardous effects of plastic bags on the environment.
Also PLA has been used to line the inside of Paper Cups in place of the oil based lining more commonly used, create Plastic ( bioplastics ) Cups, Cutlery, Carrier Bags, Food Packaging and even Nappies.


Dianne September 26, 2010 at 8:08 pm

I like the through followup on the plastic bag ban issue in California. As you say, I believe the idea is gaining momentum. All of these “radical” ideas take a while to get into the mainstream. Thank you for your part in feeding the momentum! Excellent writing, BTW.


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