The Plastic Bag Wars

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The industry campaign has already won several victories. In 2008, after Seattle imposed a 20-cent fee on plastic bags, the ACC spent $180,000 to gather enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot, then devoted another $1.4 million to overturn the fee — the most spent on any Seattle referendum. The industry campaign relied largely on scare tactics, falsely claiming that the fee would cost the average consumer an extra $300 a year. In the end, it came down to money: The bag fee was soundly defeated.

Last year, the ACC weighed in to defeat AB 1998, a California proposal to ban the use of plastic bags in supermarkets, liquor stores and convenience stores statewide. The bill was supported by a broad coalition that included major grocers and retailers as well as recyclers and environmentalists, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threw his support behind the measure. "There is no question that getting rid of plastic bags would be a great victory for the environment," he told Rolling Stone. "In California, we put together a coalition of grocers, environmentalists and labor to confront this issue head-on, and it is my hope that the coalition will continue fighting until single-use plastic bags are an ancient memory."

The ACC and its member companies were determined not to let that happen. In the months before the vote, the industry spent $2 million on contributions to key legislators, extensive lobbying and media ads that portrayed the ban as a "hidden tax on grocery bills" that would "create a new state bureaucracy." Yielding to industry pressure, the state Senate rejected the ban by a vote of 21 to 14. Even some industry insiders lamented the decision. "AB 1998 was not perfect, but it would have settled the issue and we could all have moved forward," Robert Bateman, president of bag manufacturer Roplast Industries, wrote in an industry trade journal. "As it is, the uncertainty remains and we are having to deal with a new initiative to ban thin bags each month — or is it each week?"

The warning proved prophetic. In June, the Oregon legislature rejected a statewide ban on plastic bags after the industry moved to aggressively defeat it. "I'm blown away by the campaign to block this bill by out-of-state interests," says state Sen. Mark Hass, who co-authored the measure. Hilex Poly, a leading bag manufacturer, went so far as to meet with Hass and suggest that it might be willing to build a plant to recycle plastic bags in Oregon — if he agreed to not only drop the statewide ban but also prevent cities and counties from placing their own restrictions on plastic bags.

Hass rejected the deal. "The more I look into the recycling of plastic bags," he says, "the more I think these recycling plants are more of a PR stunt than anything of substance." Because most recycling plants can't handle the ultrathin trash, fewer than nine percent of plastic bags in the U.S. are recycled in any form.

In an even more disturbing tactic, the industry has begun filing lawsuits against activists who raise the alarm about plastic bags. The suits — known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, or SLAPP — are a form of corporate bullying, designed to intimidate and silence opponents who lack the resources to defend themselves against billion-dollar companies. The industry has sued every city or county in California that has passed anti-bag legislation, demanding that the local governments pay for expensive, independent studies on the environmental impact of eliminating plastic bags. And in January, three leading plastic-bag manufacturers filed suit against ChicoBag, a small California company that makes reusable shopping bags, accusing it of causing "irreparable harm" to their business by defaming their product.

ChicoBag was founded by Andy Keller, an unemployed software salesman who visited his local landfill after an afternoon of landscaping in 2004 and was appalled by the blizzard of plastic bags he saw floating around the dump. That same day, he sat down at his kitchen table and started sewing together his own version of an ultrathin, reusable bag. Since then, Keller has become an outspoken opponent of plastic bags, creating a character called the "Bag Monster" to raise awareness about the environmental impact of disposable bags. Volunteers dressed as the monster — wearing a jumpsuit covered in 500 plastic bags, the number used annually by the average American shopper — have visited schools, shopping malls and even the White House.

The industry is suing ChicoBag in South Carolina, the home state of Hilex Poly, which offers little protection against SLAPP suits. Although the lawsuit could put Keller out of business — he has few resources to devote to a prolonged legal battle — it has also backfired on the industry, drawing even more attention to the excessive waste caused by plastic bags. "The whole idea of them suing me is to stop me," Keller says. "But instead, it has ended up galvanizing the entire movement. It's like a big school bully that came to try and take my lunch money, and then all the other kids who got picked on start standing up and saying, 'Hey, we're not going to take it anymore.'"

Whatever the outcome, the lawsuit reveals just how much the growing movement to eliminate plastic bags has frightened the plastics industry. Banning plastic bags is ultimately a statement against the disposable, throwaway culture we all have become accustomed to and dependent upon. If the plastic bag falls, what's next? Styrofoam? Plastic water bottles? "We're going to keep pushing this issue," says Sarah Sikich, director of coastal resources for Heal the Bay, an environmental group based in Southern California. "It's a battle we can win. In the end, public awareness and the grassroots movement will overcome the deep pockets of industry groups like the ACC."

This is from the August 4, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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