In most Bay Area grocery stores, you can’t get free plastic bags anymore. San Francisco, all of Alameda County, and many cities in Marin and Contra Costa County have all banned bags. To find a grocery store giving out plastic bags for free, I had to drive to a Lucky in San Ramon.
That’s where I meet Laura. She also came to San Ramon for the free bags. She doesn’t want to give her last name because she’s the manager of a local store and wants to remain anonymous. She lives in Dublin - right next door to San Ramon but across county line, where they have a bag ban.
“You have to pay for bags in Dublin. Which is why I come to Lucky’s and not Safeway,” Laura tells me. She purposefully shops at this Lucky in San Ramon instead of the Safeway in her town in order to get free plastic bags.
She could just bring own bags, of course. That’s what Tamara Armenderez usually does. She and her daughter are also shopping at Lucky today. Like Laura, they live the next town over, in Dublin, but they support the bag ban. They just forgot to bring their reusable bags in from the car.
If Prop 67 passes, Tamara might be walking back to her car to get those bags she forgot. Under Prop 67, single-use plastic bags will be banned statewide. Grocery stores will sell paper bags or reusable thicker plastic bags for 10 cents. Basically, how it is in most of the Bay Area now.
“I think it’s smart,” Tamara says. “You know it’s just people like me who leave the bags in the trunk, so I’ll have to take a few extra steps, come back to my car, get my bag…”
Or she could pay the 10 cents.
The 10 cents is part of what’s at issue here. The Prop 67 bag ban lets grocery stores keep that 10 cents. Again - just like in the Bay Area now. But a second proposition on the ballot - Prop 65 - would send that ten cents to a state fund for environmental projects, instead of letting grocery stores keep the money.
It’s confusing. And some people say that’s on purpose. Prop 65 was put on the ballot by the plastic bag industry. It doesn’t actually create a bag ban. It just says if there is a bag ban, then the 10 cent bag fee should go to an environmental fund. Environmental groups are actually encouraging people to vote “No.”
“Voters are being used”
Allison Chan from the environmental group Save the Bay says the plastic bag industry created Prop 65 to confuse voters. “Voters are being used in a sense to try and detract attention away from the proposition that is the most important and will have the most impact,” she says. “Which is ban plastic bags across California.”
Chan points out that California actually already has a statewide plastic bag ban. Jerry Brown signed it into law in 2014.
But the plastic bag industry wanted to put a stop to it. So they gathered enough signatures to put the bag ban on the ballot as a referendum. That means voters have to decide if they want to keep or repeal the law.
If Prop 67 passes, Jerry Brown’s bill will go into effect. Free plastic bags will be banned in grocery stores statewide. Environmental groups and grocer associations want you to vote “Yes” on Prop 67.
But the plastic bag industry also put Prop 65 on the ballot. It says that the 10 cents customers pay for alternative bags should go to an environmental fund.
Remember how Prop 67 is a referendum? Well, referendums always go last. So Californians will have to vote on Prop 65 before they get to Prop 67 on the ballot.
“Because 65 comes before 67,” Chan says “It’s likely to confuse voters into thinking that, ‘Uh, I voted for something having to do with plastic bags I must have done my part,’ even for voters who want to support the bag ban.”
But why don’t environmental groups want us to vote Yes for Prop 65 and Prop 67?
Time to pull out that phone book-sized voter guide you got in the mail. The way Prop 65 was written could be interpreted to cancel out the Prop 67 bag ban if Prop 65 gets more votes. That’s why environmental groups like Save the Bay and the SurfRider Foundation are asking people to vote “No” on Prop 65.
“This is an issue that is very plainly about money”
The plastic bag industry has invested $6 million to defeat the Prop 67 bag ban and pass Prop 65. Jon Berrier, a spokesperson for the American Progressive Bag Alliance that represents the plastic bag industry, says that Prop 65 was written as clearly as can be. “The intent, 100 percent, is to make sure this money is redirected,” Berrier says.
Berrier thinks that the only reason why grocery stores are supporting the Prop 67 bag ban is because they can stand to profit. “This is an issue that is very plainly about money,” Berrier says. “It’s about the grocery stores looking for a way, under the guise of environmentalism, to reap more profits.”
Grocery stores disagree. Steve Maviglio, a spokesperson for the Yes on 67 campaign, says “The notion that this has some kind of massive profit center, there’s no foundation and fact to it.”
Mavilgio is also on the Board of Directors of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Maviglio says the 10 cents that grocery stores charge for paper or reusable bags barely covers the cost. “Our grocery store for example, we’re still losing 4 to 6 cents per bag even when we charge 10 cents.”
Some of the biggest contributors to the “Yes on 67” campaign are grocery stores - Albertsons, the California Grocers Association, and Ralphs. Why would grocery stores bankroll a bag ban? Maviglio says it got confusing for the big grocery chains like Albertsons and Lucky to have a store in one town with a bag ban and a store in another town without one. Maviglio says the stores finally threw up their hands and said, “OK, let’s have statewide regulations instead of town by town regulations.”
Maviglio says the plastic bag industry created Prop 65 to get back at grocery stores for supporting the Prop 67 bag ban. So while grocers and plastic bag companies duke it out, voters will have to decide how they’re going to vote.
Environmental groups and grocery stores want you to vote No on Prop 65 and Yes on Prop 67. This would ban single-use plastic bags across the state.
The plastic bag industry wants you to vote the opposite - Yes on Prop 65 and No on Prop 67. This would strike down the statewide bag ban.