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California Plastic Bag Referendum Could Spark Environmental Showdown


Plastic bags are serious business and seriously divisive. Last year, California passed a law banning stores from giving out plastic bags for free. It was the first statewide ban of its kind in the country. It was set to take effect this July, but the plastic bag industry stopped that from happening. It financed a ballot measure to repeal the ban. Supporters of the ban say the bags contribute to street litter and ocean pollution. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the state is set for a major battle on next year's ballot.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Outside a popular independent grocery store in Oakland, shopper Will Crick approaches the entrance with an assortment of reusable bags he'll need for carrying his groceries out.

WILL CRICK: I got one for free when I bought a Giants t-shirt - they gave me a Giants bag. I found these two at my mom's house.

GONZALES: Even before the statewide ban, shoppers were bringing their own reusable grocery bags to Oakland stores. It's among the 138 California cities and counties where plastic bags are prohibited. The bags were seen as a major source of litter. These local laws also require stores to charge customers a dime for every paper bag they use. But opponents of the ban lobbied for a delay in the statewide law until the November 2016 vote. They say such an expansive ban is inconvenient and expensive.

PHILLIP ROSENSKI: This is bad policy, but even worse, it's removing personal choice.

GONZALES: Phillip Rosenski is director of marketing and sustainability at Novolex, a plastic bag manufacturer based in South Carolina. His industry spent $3 million to collect enough voter signatures to get a referendum on the ballot in November 2016 to repeal the ban. Rosenski says supporters of the ban have misled the public into believing that the dime they pay for a paper bag goes to environmental causes.

ROSENSKI: What we found out in the process of the referendum is most people are really outraged that the 10 cent fee doesn't go to the state, city or county. Rather, it goes to a private corporation.

GONZALES: By private corporations he means the grocery chains. As for the supposed environmental problems caused by the plastic bags, Rosenski says, there's really not much to worry about.

ROSENSKI: The environmental concerns that were raised were mostly hyperbole. A lot of it was exaggerated fact.

GONZALES: Not true, says Mark Murray, executive director for the Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste. He says federal studies show that the bags are a chief culprit contributing to storm drain litter and other cleanup problems, costing local communities over $400 million a year.

MARK MURRAY: Whether you live in a beach community or in the inland of the country, plastic bags pose a cost on communities, in terms of environmental cleanup.

GONZALES: Murray says the ballot fight could cost each side tens of millions of dollars. But he's confident that Californians will see who's behind the referendum and they won't support it.

MURRAY: These are special interest plastic industry manufacturers based in Texas and South Carolina that are trying to buy their way onto the ballot in California and overturn our state law.

GONZALES: Back at the Oakland grocery store, shopper Will Crick - like others we spoke to - says he supports the ban on plastic grocery bags as a small price for a cleaner community.

CRICK: I always just bring them. My wife never wants to, but I always say, baby, we should bring these bags. (Laughter). Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of plastic bag trash. And it's not really that big a deal.

GONZALES: A poll conducted late last year by the University of Southern California and The LA Times suggests opponents of the plastic bag ban have an uphill fight. It found that California voters would uphold that ban by a margin of 59 to 34 percent. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.