There Oughta Be a Law Against That!

In Virginia you’re not allowed to hunt on Sundays unless it’s for raccoons, in Wyoming it’s illegal to ski while intoxicated and in Utah there’s a statute prohibiting anyone from “causing a catastrophe.” From the sublime to the obscure, lawmakers have managed over the centuries to put some curious laws on the books ‒ and yet, precious few have chosen to tackle to the existential threat from single-use plastic. If only it were as easy as outlawing ski martinis.

clear doors to POLLING STATION with posters

Nearing a Single-Use Plastic Ban

Lost in the turmoil of Covid-19 was California’s effort late in 2020 to enact AB 1080 and SB 54 – nearly identical Assembly and Senate bills that would have cut by 75% the use of single-use plastic food ware by 2032. Although imperfect in some ways – including allowing “compostable” plastic to substitute for what’s in circulation now ‒it would have imposed taxes on manufacturers to make them responsible for their mess. Holding offenders accountable usually speeds up the process of finding solutions.

A patchwork of cities around California and the United States have implemented their own bans and restrictions to tackle the problem. Seattle bans plastic straws and Portland outlawed some forms of Styrofoam. Dozens of cities in California, Oregon, Texas and Washington ban plastic bags. The challenge is that plastic doesn’t know what jurisdiction it’s in, and consumers travel across city limits with products that still need to be properly disposed of. It was a smart first step – and one that raised awareness. But the only way to truly force a change in behavior is for an enormous state like California to set tough standards, enforce them and make it easy for people to know if they’re doing the right thing.

Meddling for Millions

The two bills that died in the waning days of the last legislative session faced an onslaught of opposition from plastic manufacturers. They hid behind the pleasant-sounding guise of Californians for Recycling and the Environment (CRE). Their own website describes them as a “national association of consumer and commercial packaging manufacturers.” Ah yes, environmentalists, all.

Californians for Recycling and the Environment’s leader is an executive with South Carolina-based Novolex, a giant plastic packaging manufacturer that put $2.3 million into lobbying against the twin bills and another $1.1 million into generally lobbying state lawmakers about the perils of reducing single-use plastic waste. The effort succeeded. While the senate mustered a majority for SB 54, the assembly fell short of the 41 it needed as both Republicans and Democrats shirked their duty to the Golden State.

woman at protest holding cardboard sign stating, "PLANET over PROFIT"

Many people complained the provisions in these bills weren’t perfect, or just replaced one problem for another – like the above-mentioned reliance on compostables. Others tried to frame it as an attack on blue-collar jobs, as though legions of skilled workers sit in workshops crafting these products, rather than tending giant, automated facilities that slurp up raw resins and spit out pallets of low-margin, utterly forgettable products.

We agree the bills were imperfect, but such is lawmaking. They at least changed the debate from “should we do something?” to “how should we do this?” The proposed taxes would have raised billions of dollars to fund and implement real solutions that could be duplicated elsewhere.

Grassroots Chance to Bar Single-Use Plastic

In light of the legislature’s failure, a ballot initiative has been proposed for the state’s November 2022 election cycle that would essentially impose the same provisions while bypassing lawmakers. Voters would have the chance to accomplish what Sacramento could not, while undoubtedly facing a barrage of ads and social media exhortations from the CRE and others who earn massive profits at our expense.

Petitions have been submitted to the California Secretary of State for review and, if enough signatures are validated, the measure will be placed before the voters about 18 months from now. Californians have repeatedly stood at the vanguard of policy progress in the past, and we hope they will choose to take this vitally important step to protect our state. As goes California, so goes the rest of the country.

With a little luck, all of Novolex’s camouflage groups may soon be surrounded by motivated, educated voters and lawmakers.

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