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In the bag

SLO County's proposed plastic bag ban has brought out the big guns

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About a year and a half ago, Dan Bakst and his buddy decided to put together a video on all the ways you can use and re-use plastic bags. Bakst, a college student living in Tampa, Fla., saw it as a way to enhance his YouTube presence and cash in on a $1,500 prize.

The event was put on by A Bag’s Life, a PR effort spreading through a few states in the Southeast to promote recycling and re-use of plastic bags. But now, Bakst’s video is an unintended mascot for the plastics industry and the American Chemistry Council’s lobbying efforts to prevent San Luis Obispo County from banning plastic bags.

The video, “Bags Are Our Best Friends,” is featured on the website for the group Keep Bags Free SLO, sponsored by the American Chemistry Council. It features Bakst palling around with a jovial plastic bag to help him line his trash can and pick up dog turds.

In fact, that contest was put on by the American Chemistry Council, a modern-day supergroup coordinated by major plastics manufacturers including ExxonMobil and the Dow Chemical Company. Bakst never really knew what he was signing on for, but these days he just sounds happy that his video got so much mileage.

But in SLO County, he’s just another piece of a plastic-manufacturer-led lobbying effort to kill a local ordinance banning the ubiquitous items.

The county’s Integrated Waste Management Authority—a 12-member group comprising all five SLO County supervisors, and a member representing each city in the area—is in the process of passing new rules that would ban retail stores from providing free plastic bags to customers and have them charge customers 10 cents for single-use paper bags. Such bans have become increasingly popular in California; it’s an easy environmental issue to get behind given that the bags have been known to jam up recycling machinery and kill animals that eat or get wrapped in them.

The authority first proposed restrictions on single-use bags in 2006, but the proposal was put on hold after a lawsuit brought by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (not affiliated with the American Chemistry Council) against Manhattan Beach for its own ordinance. However, the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that cities and counties have the right to restrict the use of bags, which has spurred bans throughout the state from areas like Marin County, San Francisco,
and Monterey.

SLO County’s keepbagsfreeslo.com is funded by the American Chemistry Council but was created by the Sacramento PR firm Wilson-Miller Communications. The firm was founded by strategists and campaigners for Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, according to its website. Also on the team are Nick Garcia and Brooke Armour, both former staffers for Abel Maldonado, the former state lieutenant governor, senator, and assemblyman who is now Lois Capps’ main challenger in the 2012 race for the Central Coast’s congressional district.

According to federal lobbying records compiled by opensecrets.org, the American Chemistry Council has spent $4.91 million in lobbying efforts this year, on top of $8.13 million spent in 2010. The group has contributed $1,500 per year to Central Coast Sen. Sam Blakeslee since 2009, according to the California Secretary of State.

Keep Bags Free SLO has sent flyers in the North County urging people to e-mail the IWMA board members and attend meetings as a show of opposition to the ordinance. And people have done just that.

The Nov. 9 IWMA meeting was uncharacteristically packed as the public turned out in force to weigh in on the bag ordinance. Based on some of the testimony that day, plastic bags seemed to lie between the wheel and the Internet on the list of humankind’s greatest inventions.

Many attendees said the ordinance was too restrictive, inconvenient, and it should be put to a public vote. They also hammered on the theme that bags can be re-used around the house. One man came to the meeting armed with a plastic bag full of dog poop he said he’d picked up outside. Many said banning bags isn’t just inconvenient, it’s an attack on American freedoms. A handout passed around the room indicated plastic bag bans were put on by manufacturers of cloth bags, but also warned that some people who forget to wash cloth bags might catch bacterial infections.

County Assessor Tom Bordonaro’s daughter, Franny Falcone, said banning single-use bags would make life harder for her father, who is bound to a wheelchair.

“Forcing him to use a paper bag is discriminatory,” she said.

Still others denounced the bags as an environmental scourge that would be easy to do away with.

“I’m old enough to remember life before single-use bags, and I think sometimes we need to admit that something is wrong; it never should have happened,” one woman said.

The Keep Bags Free SLO list of supporters includes the Central Coast Taxpayers Association and the Coalition of Labor Agriculture & Business of San Luis Obispo County (COLAB). COLAB Government Affairs Director Mike Brown said at the meeting, “Do you want a free society with individual choice, or do you want government social engineering?”

Taxpayers Association President Jean Ponek told New Times, “We’re saying that we don’t need any more taxes, any more surcharges; we don’t need any more fees.”

On the other side of the fence, a couple of Cal Poly students began Think Outside the Bag earlier this year, with no funding.

“You didn’t run for office to make a lot of money,” the group’s co-founder, Chad Worth, told the IWMA members. “You ran to make your community a better place.”

Not all of the ordinance opposition is tied to the American Chemistry Council. John Peschong of the Republican Party of SLO County said he’s personally against the strict penalties embedded in the ordinance and favors a voluntary program and efforts to educate the community about recycling. He noted the Republican Party hasn’t taken an official position on the ordinance and indeed isn’t listed alongside the American Chemistry Council’s Keep Bags Free SLO campaign.

People on both sides have begun gathering petitions. One group has more than 600 signatures supporting the ban, while another has gathered 350 opposing it.

Whatever the reason, the opposition force seems to be gaining traction with IWMA members. On Sept. 14, the ordinance moved forward with only one board member, North County Supervisor Frank Mecham, voting against any further action (two members were absent). But on Nov. 9, the item squeaked by on a 7-5 vote in which three members—Carla Borchard, John Hamon, and Tom O’Malley—changed positions from their Sept. 14 votes.

Borchard told New Times she’s “received hundreds of e-mails against this ban” since Sept. 14, and Hamon said he’s always favored a less stringent version of the ordinance. He, too, has received “a lot of e-mail opposing the move.”

The ordinance is scheduled to come back before the IWMA for another hearing in January 2012. If it’s passed, it would go into effect in September of that year.

News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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