California is usually a world leader when it comes to environmental policy, but there’s one notable blemish on its sterling record — and it’s rapidly turning into one of the most spectacular failures by the environmental lobby in recent memory.
When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors launched a war against small plastic bags in 2007, many expected the world would quickly follow suit and restrict the free flow of plastic bags at grocery and retail stores.
Four years later, the idea has not only failed to catch on but its proponents of the bill have also recklessly manipulated the science and facts to serve their purposes.
They dismiss their failure to inspire as the byproduct of a sputtering economy that draws attention and resources elsewhere. What they’re afraid to admit is that their creation is a bit like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a well-intentioned but ill-informed modern Prometheus that has transformed from mere failure into a dangerous liability that materially worsens everything around it.
It’s not hard to see where everything went wrong. Just like the monster of Shelley’s imagination, the war is rooted in bad science and fuzzy math
. Countless studies have tried to quantify the use, reuse, and recycling of plastic, paper, and reusable bags, but there’s little consensus and a disturbingly large margin of error.
Worse, the backers of the war have also based their plan on aesthetics not science. Discarded plastic bags dot the polluted landscape in gutters, alleyways and littered streets, but a San Francisco audit showed that they account for less than three percent of the city’s litter.
Sadly, the politics of San Francisco has become the politics of California, where breathless hysteria and big personalities trump the facts.
While some municipalities have wisely shied away from replicating the failed ordinance, those that have followed are now reaping the chaos. Last month, a major plastic bag manufacturer filed suit
against Los Angeles County over its plastic bag ban. Regardless of who wins or loses, the legal bills alone will drain precious taxpayer resources at a time when budgets are already under intense pressure.
The bold and ambitious war on plastic bags leaves a dubious legacy:
- Plastic bags are recycled: Supporters of a plastic bag ban based their science on the assumption that plastic bags are used once and then thrown away. But most everyone re-uses the plastic bags as trash liners, doggie bags, or multi-use carriers.
- Futility in protecting the environment: In fact, researchers found more bags on San Francisco streets in the year after the ban than before.
- Killing jobs: With the nationwide unemployment rate standing firm at 9 percent, job creation should be the priority of all governments. If non-recycled bags are a threat to the environment, attacking the plastic and paper companies who provide the bags and jobs to create those bags is not the solution.
- Sticking it to the poor: The rich have staff to do the grocery shopping and the middle-class have cars to carry the groceries, but the poor are the ones lugging bags on public buses and subways. The poor end up paying the bag surcharge at the checkout counters.
On the same day Los Angeles County was sued over its bag ban, the City Council of Huntington Beach voted to hire a consulting firm for $30,000 to evaluate a potential bag ordinance. Wouldn’t everyone be better served by spending $30,000 to put a recycling bin on every street corner in the commercial and beach areas of the city?
There’s little denying that there are far too many plastic bags in the landfills. But instead of attacking an industry and scaring consumers into over-reacting, environmentalists have manipulated the facts to win an emotional battle with short-term gains. As the facts behind the plastic bag hype become known, the public will realize that the environmental movement has once again over-reached.
Brad Chase is a partner at Capitol Media Partners, a Los Angeles-based strategic media and public affairs consultancy. He has nearly a decade of experience providing communications counsel to FORTUNE 500 companies as well as campaigns and causes across the political spectrum.
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