Why the F Are There Two Propositions About the Plastic Bag Ban?

Every year, there's at least one proposition in California designed specifically to screw with voters. This year, it's Proposition 65, which The Mercury News calls "one of the most disingenuous ballot measures in state history — and that's saying something."

Indeed, there's reason to believe that voters are confused by Proposition 65, which is one of two initiatives on the November ballot dealing with lightweight plastic bags — which already were banned in 2014. Proposition 67 is a referendum on that ban. (Do we actually need a referendum on a ban? Read on.) Proposition 65, meanwhile, would mandate that the 10-cent fee grocery stores charge for disposable bags (the ones that aren't banned, like paper bags) go to something called the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Fund. Those fees arose as part of the initial plastic bag ban.

According to recent analysis by Capitol Weekly, 68 percent of voters who support Proposition 65 characterize their vote as against the plastic bag industry — despite the fact that the initiative was written by and is being funded by ... the plastic bag industry. 

Here, then, is our Vox-style attempt to explain this whole sorry mess:

Why are we even voting on this? Plastic bags have been banned at grocery stores since forever (aka two years) ago.

It's true that in L.A. County, grocery stores have been forbidden to give away or even sell plastic bags since July 1, 2014. Same goes for nearly 150 other counties in California, or about half the state. 

In September 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 270, which would have made California the first state to ban grocery stores from giving away lightweight plastic bags. But the law, which was supposed to go into effect in July 2015, was delayed by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a trade group for plastic bag manufacturers. They paid petitioners to gather enough signatures for a statewide referendum on SB 270. And that's Proposition 67.

So if I want to ban plastic bags in grocery stores, how should I vote on 67?

Yes on 67 means you want the ban to happen. 

Interestingly, 67 is not an initiative, which is a law written by voters; 67 is a referendum on a law the Legislature already passed, which is why it's last on the state ballot.

That's really not that interesting.

Whatever, dick.

OK, so if 67 was put on the ballot by the plastic bag industry, who put 65 on the ballot?

The plastic bag industry.

.... ?

Right, this is the weird one. The American Progressive Bag Alliance — which isn't particularly progressive — wrote Proposition 65 and has already spent more than $6 million on it.

Should Proposition 67 pass, grocery stores would have to charge 10 cents for every paper bag they give you at the store (that's already true in L.A.). That's meant to incentivize people to bring their own reusable bags. It's also kind of a sop to the grocery stores, whose operators initially were against the plastic bag ban.

Proposition 65 would take that 10 cents per bag away from the grocery stores and give it to some new state government–run environmental fund that Proposition 65 would create. That fund would give out grants to environmental causes.

I like the environment.

Guess who's against Proposition 65? Environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay, Surfrider and the Nature Conservancy.

Steve Maviglio, who's running the Yes on 67 campaign, says the Bag Alliance is using Proposition 65 as a smokescreen.

"They have no interest in the environment," Maviglio says. "They’re just trying to confuse voters and screw the grocery industry. They want to make sure that grocers in the rest of the country never get on board with future initiatives like this one."

Jon Berrier, spokesman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, doesn't really deny this.

"The industry is 100 percent against the bag ban," Berrier says. "But if there is going to be a bag ban, the industry feels the fees should not be going to a corporation, they should be going to a public purpose."

He adds: "If highlighting that helps voters reach the conclusion that SB 270 was an incredibly flawed piece of legislation, and therefore they decide they want to vote no on [Proposition 67], that is obviously something we would support."

Why are we banning plastic bags again? I remember there's a good reason...

Lightweight plastic bags are made of polyethylene, which is not biodegradable — though the bags are photodegradable. If they're exposed to the sun's ultraviolet radiation, they can break down into tiny granules, but scientists aren't really sure what happens to the granules. Point being, they stick around for a long time, and they're a pain in the ass to recycle.

"They’re a major environmental nuisance," Maviglio says. "About 14 billion plastic bags enter California's environment every year. Many of them end up in the ocean or on the coast. They’re a bane of recyclers, because they jam recycling equipment."

A number of countries have banned lightweight plastic bags, including China, India, South Africa, Italy and Rwanda. Many other countries, like France, Germany and Denmark, tax lightweight plastic bags.


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