Suffocating Freedom: Plastic Bags, California's Progress, and Polluters' Fight to the Death

When California responded to a pervasive and costly form of blight by enacting the nation's first statewide ban on throwaway plastic bags, the victory was more than a landmark for environmental protection. It was a breakthrough for public policy based on science and fiscal wisdom against a multi-million-dollar lobbying blitz by polluters. Some in the plastic industry, however, will stop at nothing to exact profits at Americans' expense while poisoning the climate and betraying their own small-government rhetoric.

Fraud, waste, and abuse are three of the most prized words in the traditional conservative attack on government, going back to Ronald Reagan. But in today's California, the tables have turned. Reporters, opinion leaders, and voters are pinning this trio of badges not on bureaucrats or politicians, but on plastic manufacturers from out of state. Operating by the deceptive name of "Progressive Bag Alliance," they are sailing under false colors to sell a toxic cargo of plastic waste, even while abusing the state's initiative process to take away a popular anti-pollution law.

California's 2014 statewide ban, SB 270, aims to save taxpayers some of the $500 million we spend on retrieving plastic bags and other debris from storm drains, gutters, and beaches. It builds on more than 100 local ordinances in the state, which evidence shows work to stop blight from plastic bags by 90 percent or more. It reflects consumers' widespread shift away from plastic to reusable bags, an innovative and expanding industry on the West Coast. The ban enjoys support from nearly two out of three Californians.

But never mind what locals in this laboratory of democracy, the world's sixth largest economy, happen to believe. A few plastic manufacturers in Texas, South Carolina, and New Jersey think they know best. They have dumped nearly $6 million into California to trigger a Nov. 8 referendum on the law. That measure, Prop 67, needs a majority "yes" vote to preserve the ban.

They have also spent millions to meddle with the terms of the ban by sponsoring a second measure, Prop 65. Since that requires a "no" vote to stop, plastic manufacturers are banking on confusion over their two related measures. California voters who care about the environment face the challenge of voting "no" on 65 and then "yes" on 67.

Polluters' money bomb in California is part of a larger war chest to take the option of limiting plastic waste out of Americans' hands altogether and off the table. Forever.

Using cookie-cutter legislation promoted by a network of policy groups funded by the Koch Brothers and polluting industries, lawmakers in six states have already prohibited local policies that restrict plastic bag sales. That's right: they banned bans. Far from stemming the tide of non-biodegradable waste whose costly collection and cleanup soaks taxpayers' wallets, lawmakers in thrall to plastic polluters' campaign donations opened the floodgates further. And they tied the hands of local and state officials from doing anything to stop the damage.

In Missouri, the push for impunity by plastic polluters took on an added dimension: banning minimum wage increases. Over the veto of Democratic governor Jay Nixon, a gang of right-wing lawmakers in September 2015 approved a law that bars cities and counties from lifting the wage floor for working families while also forbidding restrictions on plastic-bag sales.

Florida, Arizona, and Idaho are likewise giving a whole new meaning to the conservative notion of restraint by tying the hands of local officials to do anything to stop costly waste and plastic-bag blight. So have Wisconsin and Indiana, whose governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence harbor ambitions for higher elected office.

Delaying any limits on throwaway plastic bags is deadly for more than the infants who choke on them each year (after all, that's why California and 4 other states mandate warning labels). Many marine species, including food fish on which millions of Americans depend, are threatened by steadily rising levels of plastic waste in rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The right to live in a clean environment is only as good as the scruples of those who would inflict pollution or the power and ingenuity of the people to stop it. Anyone who has pulled plastic bags from the bed of an urban river or seen their shreds in the stomach of California's official marine reptile, the endangered seagoing leatherback turtle, knows that ecosystems do not clean themselves. Worsening the burden are retail sales of 14 billion plastic bags in California, the bulk of which end up in dumps or drifting into nature.

Time is of the essence in reducing plastic-bag waste at the source. Estimates this year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, widely reported in U.S. media, point to plastic waste, including bags, outstripping fish in the ocean by 2050. You read that right.

Each American adult pays about $20 per year in hidden costs to retailers for the estimated 500 throwaway plastic bags carted away from checkout counters. That adds up to nearly $4 billion in costs to consumers and 100 billion plastic bags in the trash. Estimates place the crude oil used in making the plastic bags that Americans throw out each year at between 8 million and 12 million barrels, qualifying bags as a contributor to climate destruction even before they enter the ecosystem.

Far from tailing off naturally amid rising consciousness and use of reusable bags, plastic production is likely to escalate. If current rates of expansion continue, the World Economic Forum estimates quadrupling of plastic waste by 2050.

Nations as diverse as Ireland, Italy, Bulgaria, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, and Bangladesh have responded to blight and flooding from clogged storm drains by curtailing or taxing plastic bags. Homeowners and businesses in a heavily Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles suffered major losses during a flash flood in October 2015 after plastic bags and other debris blocked a runoff basin. Why not more bans in U.S. states?

Plastic polluters throw their weight and money around to buy influence, and legislative outcomes. California's statewide ban was 8 years in the making, during which polluters spent $3 million to kill it. They have an amen corner among phony anti-government pharisees like Grover Norquist, who pretend to hate the boot heel of the nanny state, except when they are wearing the boots and the frock.

Taking away the authority of local jurisdictions and states to limit plastic-bag waste effectively paralyzes the only civic force with practical capacity to rein in polluters. This strategy by the plastics industry offers a cruel twist on conservative rhetoric about the value of local government, the layer closest to the people.

It was 5-star Army General and Republican icon Dwight Eisenhower who wrote in 1960 that "pollution is a uniquely local blight." Ike added, "Primary responsibility for solving the problem lies not with the federal government, but rather must be assumed and exercised, as it has been, by the state and local governments."

Fake conservatives of today who now shill for polluters against taxpayers have clearly lost their grip on the previous generation. They have also lost their hold on habits and views of Generations X and Y as well as millennials, for whom reusable bags are a fact of life. Such perverse displays of hypocrisy and relegation to the political fringe show how effectively the environmental coalition has captured the bipartisan moral high ground. In California, that consensus of conscience is mobilizing to overcome the filthy lucre of Big Plastic at the ballot box.