“I don’t care darling. I just serve my customers. Plastic or paper, I don’t care,” said Nikki Yi, the owner of the Fat Cat sandwich store on Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland, while preparing a club sandwich behind the counter. Yi greeted her customers by name and she seemed to know everyone who walked into her store that day. Her black hair was pulled into a ponytail, she wore black-framed glasses, and you could hardly see her over the store counter.
Behind the counter, Yi keeps white plastic bags with “Thank You” printed on them to put her customers’ sandwiches in before they walk out.
Four plastic bag companies have collected enough signatures to put Proposition 67 on the November ballot, in an attempt to bring plastic bags back into use.
A plastic bag ban called Senate Bill 270 was passed by the California State Legislature and signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2014. It went into effect in July, 2015. SB 270 prohibited grocery stores in California from giving out plastic bags for free to customers. It requires stores to give out compostable paper bags to customers at a cost of 10 cents per bag.
This year, thanks to Proposition 67, the plastic bag ban is facing a referendum. A yes vote means that the ban on single-use plastic bags will continue. A no vote means that stores will be able to provide plastic bags unless they are banned locally by the city.
The argument against single-use plastic bags is that they create pollution, harm wildlife and increase the cost for cleanup of the environment.
But plastic bag supporters aren’t making any official comments in favor of them; the four companies supporting the bill did not return requests for comment.
In downtown Oakland, merchants have different opinions on banning the bags. Some agree with the ban, but others are still using them because they don’t want to lose costumers over the 10-cent charge.
“I don’t feel good about bringing a vote on plastic bags again,” said Starle Vanflet, the owner of Bibliomania bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. “I remember people coming around trying to sell me these bags in my shop, and I always refused. I never wanted to do anything to do with them [plastic bags].”
“I’m for banning plastic bags,” Vanflet continued. “I ask my customers if they need a bag and I have paper bags to give them if they want a bag. And no, I don’t charge them for it.”
Nathen Fraim, the owner of the S&A Quality Market in downtown Oakland, said, “I have a lot of unhappy customers about the 10 cents. A lot of my customers can’t afford the 10 cents, and they expect that I’m automatically going to give them a bag when they buy stuff here.”
Fraim tells his customers that he would get in trouble for that from the state. “I tell them I can get fined for giving free 10 cent bags,” Fraim said. “When we explain that to the customers, some don’t understand that part, but some others do.”
“I feel like we should ban plastic bags all together,” Fraim said. “It’s better for the Earth. I’d rather have paper or reusable bags instead of plastic.”
Craig Jones, the owner of Uncle Willie’s Original BBQ & Fish, believes that people have gotten used to not having plastic bags since they were banned in 2014. “Why bring it back?” Jones said.
“I’m surprised that is it on the ballot this time around,” Jones said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Varsha Kumar, student media coordinator for Save the Plastic Bag Ban Campaign, said they are trying to raise awareness about the effect of single-use plastic bags on the environment. They encourage people to vote yes on Proposition 67 to continue banning plastic bags in California.
“We start by telling people about the background of the issue, and how in 2014 California was the first state in the country to ban plastic bags statewide, which was a huge victory or the ocean and the protection of marine animals and sea turtle,” said Kumar. According to Kumar, many marine animals mistake the plastic bags for food.
According to Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, which successfully advocated to ban the bags in Washington, the biggest reason plastic bags are bad for the environment is that they don’t break down. “They just break into tiny pieces. We are finding micro-plastic in our fresh water creeks and lakes and also in our marine waters,” she said. “We are finding that fish are eating them, because they look like fish food, and therefore goes in the animal’s blood stream. Essentially, we as humans are eating these fish, and therefore we are eating the plastic.”
California and many states in the U.S. have implemented a plastic recycling system to protect the environment and save wild animals, but Trim says recycling is not enough.
“We have done for decades and decades recycling, and unfortunately that has not resolved the problem,” Trim said. Plastic bags “blow around in the wind easily and get around into our trees. … They wash away, when it’s raining, in the storm water and end up in our creeks.”
Another issue is that plastic is made out petroleum. Trim said that, as a society, we are trying to move away from spending on fossil fuels and disposable one-use products like plastic bags. Trim said that it is easy to change to simplify your life, like by bringing a reusable bag when you go shopping. She said she uses canvas bags that are stronger and hold more.
Mark Murray, executive director of California Against Waste, the Yes on Prop 67 campaign, said that they are supporting it because the policy works to eliminate billions of single-use plastic grocery bags. “This already is the law in more than 150 cities and counties including the entire Bay Area,” he said. “This policy is working to reduce littering and waste, and it is working to reduce costs for consumers.”
According to Murray, there are 10 billion plastic bags generated in California every year. “Even though as consumers we don’t pay for plastic bags at the checkout in stores, they are costing us $150 million a year in higher grocery prices,” he said. “The cost of these plastic bags is added to our groceries. There is not such a thing as free plastic bags.”
Murray believes that a state ban will be an incentive for people to bring their own reusable bags. “The amount of paper bags that been generated now is 17 paper bags per capita annually,” he said. “That is a lower amount of bags than we were consuming before the policy went into effect. Not only that we are eliminating plastic bags, but we actually reducing the amount of paper bags from being consumed.”
Six different political action groups are supporting the ban. According to the California Secretary of State’s website, the group Yes on 67 – Protect the Plastic Bag Ban has spent $493,315.83 this year and the Save the Bay Action Fund PAC has spent $670,397
The total campaign contributions in 2016 from American Progressive Bag Alliance, a non-profit for project of the Society of the Plastics Industry to support the no campaign, is $1,889,097.
These companies include Advance Polybag, INC., Formosa Plastic Corporation U.S.A., Hilex Poly CO. LLC, and SUPERBAG CORP according the California Secretary of State’s website.
The companies funding the No on Proposition 67 campaign were approached for comments, but none of them responded to requests. Neither did the attorney for the person who authored the initiative.
There is another proposition on the ballot regarding plastic bags. Proposition 65 would redirect the 10 cents that grocery stores collect for paper bags to special fund that will go toward environmental projects. But here is where it gets tricky: Proposition 65 is backed by the plastic bag companies, but it is opposed by environmental groups.
Murray said that Proposition 65 is sponsored by out–of–state plastic companies from South Carolina and Texas. “These companies don’t care about California’s environment,” Murray said. “They just want to confuse voters and distract from the real issue: the need to phase out plastic grocery bags. 65 is deceptive and doesn’t deserve your vote.”
According to the lobbyist group Nielsen Merksamer, which represents the plastic companies campaigning No on Prop 67 and Yes on Prop 65, the legislations’ requirement that grocery stores collect 10 cents for the paper bags they hand out to costumers adds to the grocery bill for shoppers. The Nielsen Merksamer groups stated in their argument on the Secretary of State’s website that grocers get $300 million richer, while shoppers lose $300 million per year. They argue Proposition 65 would redirect those fees to environmental projects, not grocer profits.