By now you’ve heard the horrible news that AB 1998, which would’ve banned single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and other selected retailers statewide, went down to defeat by a 21-14 vote in the California state Senate last night. The bill garnered global attention as the world waited to see if the so-called Golden State could once again lead the way on environmental protection and sustainability. The Heal the Bay-sponsored measure also received unprecedented coalition support from grocers, retailers, unions, cities, counties, and environmental groups. But the vote wasn’t close.
Our staff and supporters worked round the clock to pass the bill, and it didn’t even matter. Thousands of people called or wrote their state senators in support, and it didn’t even matter. Our ad agency partners at DDB crafted the brilliant “The Majestic Life of the Plastic Bag” mockumentary, which hundreds of thousands of people viewed, and it didn’t matter. The state’s elected leadership — Gov. Schwarzenegger, Senate pro-tem Steinberg and Speaker Perez — supported the bill, and it didn’t even matter.
With such an unprecedented organization effort, how did the bill fail so miserably?
It would be easy to place the blame solely on the shoulders of the polluters, the American Chemistry Council, which represents bag manufacturers. After all, they poured millions of dollars into a multimedia disinformation campaign to oppose the bill. Also, they lined the pockets of numerous legislators that ended up opposing the measure.
The ACC, as a polluter, did whatever was necessary to protect their clients’ ability to produce plastic bags, the scourge of the world’s oceans. Special interests’ influence over the legislature is hardly news. It is more of a story when the legislature exerts leadership and votes with a conscience.
To me, the whole debacle demonstrates just how dysfunctional the state legislature has become. The fact that the Governor, Speaker and Pro-Tem couldn’t deliver a win on an issue that’s garnered global attention demonstrates the level of gridlock in the legislature. Bold innovation is not rewarded. Leadership is ineffective. The days of Willie Brown and John Burton successfully imposing their will on legislative votes are but a distant memory. Laws that protect the special interests at the expense of the public pass routinely. No wonder we still don’t have a state budget in September.
Opposition arguments last night were straight out of Lewis Carroll. We had Sen. Sam Aanestad oppose the bill on environmental grounds, including greenhouse gas emissions. I’m guessing that he wasn’t one of Fran Pavley’s co-authors on AB 32, California’s climate change initiative.
Speaking of AB 32 authors, look at one of the ACC’s hired guns — none other than Fabian Nunez, past Speaker of the Assembly. Because he is clearly no friend of urban rivers or marine life, can he return all of the environmental awards he received for that effort?
Sen. Lois Wolk argued that it was better for California to allow local governments to come up with their own ordinances to reduce plastic bag litter. I’m pretty sure that the grocers and retailers aren’t too thrilled by the prospect of 60+ different municipal and county bag ban and fee ordinances. Also, Wolk argued for a fee or rebate-type program. I don’t recall her championing our failed bag fee bill the previous two years.
Even worse than those that spoke in opposition? The group of senators that opposed and remained silent. Local state Sens. Curren Price and Gloria Romero held major swing votes. Support should have been easy for them because it is well known that bag bans are likely to move forward in their districts at the regional level. A level playing field statewide would have helped businesses in their district. Unconscionably, despite hundreds of support calls to their offices, Price and Romero opposed the bill without providing any cogent reasons.
These are the 21 senators that condemned sea turtles, fish and marine mammals to continued hazardous conditions: Aanestad, Ashburn, Calderon, Codgill, Correa, Denham, Ducheny, Dutton, Emerson, Florez, Harman, Hollingsworth, Huff, Negrete McLeod, Price, Romero, Runner, Walters, Wolk, Wright and Wyland.
Please remember these names. They are not friends of the marine environment and should be held accountable for their actions. Please write them or call them and tell them you’re upset by their anti-environmental vote. Feel free to mail them your plastic bags as well.
The coalition’s efforts were not rewarded last night, but they will be rewarded in the near future. Our efforts moved the needle on social change dramatically. The days of plastic bags at grocery and retail stores are numbered. This became a national story. Even a global one. This was the most controversial bill in the legislature. We can’t rely on the state political system to effect the change we need, namely an end to the marine debris crisis.
As for Heal the Bay, look for us to continue working with the environmental coalition to enact plastic bag bans on the local government level. Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County have all publicly committed to moving forward with bag bans. Long Beach and Pasadena have expressed interest as well.
Our efforts to ban bags have been delayed, but we won’t stop until they become forgotten relics of past societal excess.