Emily Utter was instrumental in getting the City of San Francisco to ban plastic bags. Now she works on staff with Bag It The Movie to help other cities and towns do the same. In spite of the plastic and chemical industries millions of dollars and best efforts, Emily and the BagIt team are making huge progress.
Here is a bit of the story.
Why are plastic bag fees or a plastic bag ban the answer? What about the argument that education is the answer?
Public education campaigns are most effective when coupled with legislation. Cities spend a ton of money on educational campaigns and it is for a negligible result, but when we see what legislation does – it is so obvious that it is what works.
What are examples of what you have seen legislation do for the plastic bag problem thus far?
In Washington D.C. when they implemented a five cent fee on paper and plastic bags within weeks 80% of people were refusing bags. It is a simple and practical piece of legislation that has an immediate and obvious impact.
Are cities and towns pushing for plastic bag fees because it is easier to pass than a plastic bag ban?
I think it depends on the personality of the city and the council. Some people against fees for plastic bags in Seattle were saying, ‘If they really cared about the environment they would ban the bag instead of charge for it.’ I think some people don’t understand how the fee actually results in a positive behavior change. Some cities think it makes more sense to ban plastic bags all together. Some cities think it makes more sense to charge a fee for plastic bags. Austin just banned all bags.
How would I go about getting a plastic bag ban in my town?
If it is just an individual that wants to get involved I always recommend people look for other groups in their area that are either interested in doing it or are currently doing something about the plastic bag problem – a Sierra Club Chapter, a Surfrider chapter or an environmental club are good places to start. Once people do the research they often find there are already groups in their area working on the plastic bag issue.
Then, once a group has formed they should check out the city council to determine the environmental leader within the council that would sponsor plastic bag ban or fee legislation and set up a meeting to see if the council person identified is interested in sponsoring legislation.
Are there are general challenges that everyone is facing regardless of town size or structure in passing plastic bag legislation?
The plastic industry. They are extremely well funded and they will send their representatives all over the country to fight the legislation.
How are people overcoming the challenges the plastic industry is creating?
Perseverance. We see the impact of plastic on our health and on our environment. There is a lot passion and understanding about this issue now. We see the plastic bags in our neighborhoods, in our parks and on our beaches. People know there are practical and easy ways to take care of this problem. We have seen this in Europe for years and now the US is finally starting to catch up. With all of the global examples, we are also seeing global momentum for this issue. It gives us the mental support to keep at it. It is not like we are proposing something totally out of the blue. Everything we are proposing is practical and it has a really obvious impact that we can see immediately.
It seems like the plastic industry would be kind of scary, especially to little towns.
I think for some of the smaller towns the plastics industry just kind of says, ‘We are not going to bother.’ They are focused on bigger targets and being strategic about it. Everyone looks to California for environmental legislation and the plastic industry is really trying to battle us here. Given the focus on suing California cities, some of the non-Californian cities have had an easier time because all of the plastic industry resources are going to California. I think if Denver brought the plastic bag issue up again you would see the plastic industry bringing in the big guns again. I know Chicago is starting to work on legislation and we will see the plastic industry come out in force. This is also why the plastic industry shows up to the smaller towns outside of Chicago because they see when a smaller town outside of a bigger city does it it spurs other cities around them to do it.
When is the plastic industry winning this battle?
Seattle actually passed a paper and plastic bag fee in 2009, but then the American Chemistry Council flew in signature gathers and paid them double what normal petition signature gathers get paid, $2 per signature instead of $1 per signature and they canvassed outside of supermarkets to get the issue on the ballot. Then they spent over a million dollars on a campaign to overturn the plastic bag fee. We ended up losing on the ballot. We did not lose by a lot, but it was really disappointing. Seattle didn’t give up and recently passed a ban on plastic bags that will go into effect this July.
In California, the plastic industry backed a state bill that prohibits fees on plastic bags so we could no longer pass plastic bag legislation that was based on fees. That is why in California we are passing legislation that bans plastic bags all together because it is illegal now to charge for them.
How do you and BagIt support people and towns in banning the plastic bag?
There are different things we can do. For communities closer to the BagIt headquarters in Telluride some of the staff and stars of the film have gone out to speak or do Q & A. The other piece is we help people arrange screenings of BagIt. We do not just give advocates the DVD. We give them a tool kit to help people engage their towns. We want it to be a comprehensive experience. We don’t want people to see the film, get riled up and then just go home. We want to give them something to do after they see the film.
I respond to as many people in as places as I can. I work with people who have never done policy in their lives and I work with people who have worked on legislation for a long time. Our tool kits are the first easy thing we provide and then as people get into the issues I can provide one on one strategy consulting at no cost. With some cases, for example things near San Francisco, I can provide direct lobbying on behalf of BagIt. We don’t, right now, have the resources to send me all over the place, but I would love to do that. We try to support people at whatever level they are at.
What about successes the Bag It team has seen thus far?
Bellingham Washington has passed plastic bag legislation and now other parts of Washington are doing the same. Seattle just passed a ban. In Colorado, Telluride was one of the first; Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale also have passed plastic bag legislation. San Francisco is a recent great success. We are up to about 90 cities where we have provided information.
It is interesting to me that Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, other entire African countries can ban this, but states and cities in North America struggle with it. Is this because in Africa there is less influence from the plastics industry?
It probably has something to do with it. I think the influence of the American Chemistry Council is huge. In Canada there are similar industry influences. I think in some African countries the single use culture has not proliferated the same way that it has here.
Are you finding any truth in the argument that the transition from the single use bag to a reusable bag is difficult?
I honestly haven’t. San Jose, California implemented a ban on plastic bags and a charge on paper bags in January and by and large the impact has been very positive. What I always say to people is there are certain things you never leave the house without – your keys, your wallet or your purse, your cell phone – bags just need to become something that you don’t leave the house without. I think the economic disincentive of having to pay for a bag is what makes people remember to bring their own bags.
Plastic bags have only been around since the 70s. The folks that are older than me once lived without the plastic bag and I think it is really important to remember that.
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