By Jessica Mason and Calvin Sloan
The pay-to-play model of government advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) scored another victory this week. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Senate voted along party lines to approve a bill that would prohibit local communities from issuing their own rules on plastic bags and other containers.
This is part of an emerging national trend.
Preventing local governments from banning, charging a fee for, or otherwise regulating plastic bags is part of a national strategy by corporate interests and groups they fund, like ALEC to override progressive policy gains at the city and county level.
The Wisconsin bill, AB 730/SB 601, was introduced by ALEC legislators including Reps. Rob Swearingen, David Craig, Mike Kuglitsch, David Murphy. ALEC legislator co-sponsors include Sens. Frank Lasee, Chris Kapenga, and Devin LeMahieu. (Through ALEC, corporate lobbyists get an equal vote with state legislators on ALEC task forces considering “model” bills that are priorities to the corporate legislative agendas of the special interests that fund ALEC or underwrite trips by ALEC legislators to resort meetings where they are wined and dined.)
In Wisconsin, no city had adopted a plastic bag ban to address the proliferation of the bags used to carry groceries or other goods, even though some such bags can take hundreds of years to degrade if left in the sun (and may never degrade if put in a landfill).
Nationally, Local Governments Are the Vanguard in Addressing Plastic Waste
An estimated hundred billion plastic bags are used in the U.S. annually, but only about 12 percent of them are recycled, making them a significant waste-disposal problem for towns and cities.
In addition to the cost of burying billions of disposable containers in landfills, plastic bag litter often ends up in streams and rivers, where it potentially leaches endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A into the water supply.
The ocean’s five plastic gyres—the most infamous being the Great Pacific garbage patch—are rapidly expanding. At current rates, by 2050, there will be more plastic (by weight) in the ocean’s water than fish, leading the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment and the Ocean Conservatory to declare, "the amount of unmanaged plastic waste entering the ocean... has reached crisis levels."
Beyond threatening ecosystems and human health, plastic waste is already taking a financial toll on fishing industries, urban infrastructure, and tourist economies. The World Economic Institute concludes that "the cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually—exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool."
U.S. cities started experimenting with ways to reduce plastic bag waste in the late 2000s, with cities like Washington, D.C., and Portland, Maine, adopting small fees on single-use plastic bags. Other cities like Honolulu tried out biodegradable and compostable bags. Still other cities, such as San Francisco, banned plastic bags altogether.
In 2013, the City Council of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, considered a measure that aimed to reduce—not ban—plastic bag use through voluntary measures and a 5-cent fee phased in over several years, a modest measure that would still be prohibited under AB 730, the bill that passed on Tuesday.
But disposable consumer goods—and the disposable bags that carry them home—are a lucrative business.
The plastics industry's response to these local bag regulations reveals a lot about how corporations can do an end-run around local democracy when affects their bottom line, even if the public interest supports such measures.
Who Needs Democracy When You Have the ALEC Inside Track?
One of the few pieces of model legislation adopted by the American City County Exchange (ACCE), the ALEC offshoot targeting local elected officials, is a resolution titled "Regulating Containers to Protect Business and Consumer Choice."
That resolution calls on municipal governments not to regulate single-use containers and packaging, such as "reusable bags, disposable bags, boxes, cups, and bottles that are made of cloth, paper, plastic, extruded polystyrene, or similar materials…”
It also asserts that "confusing" regulations will lead to increased costs to consumers and businesses, and claims that the "free market is the best arbiter of the container," despite the failure of the market to address the problem of the estimated nearly 88 billion plastic bags that are not recycled annually in the U.S.
A group calling itself the “American Progressive Bag Alliance” (ABPA), a trade group that has been funded by plastics manufacturers like Novolex, the Superbag Corporation, and Advanced Polybag, paid an unknown sum to ALEC to present a “workshop” to policymakers claiming that plastic bag regulations are "ill-advised and deliberately misleading legislation." That presentation was at the December 2014 ACCE meeting in Washington, D.C.
At ALEC/ACCE, Local Democracy on Fracking = "Hitler" and "Fascism" according to the American Petroleum Institute
APBA also paid to sit alongside local elected officials at the July 2015 ACCE conference in San Diego where the “model” resolution against plastic bag bans was drafted and adopted.
In December 2015, APBA also paid to send its policy chair, Philip Rozenski, to the ACCE meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he claimed to elected officials that plastic bags were actually good for the environment.
APBA has also led an effort to kill California's statewide ban on plastic bags. The trade group spent $3 million in 2015 on a petition drive in California to force a referendum on a statewide ban on plastic bags, which goes before voters later this year.
APBA’s website also links to a "recycling awareness campaign," abagslife.com, which doesn't highlight its authorship. Older posts on the site reveal that the campaign purports to be a "collaborative effort between the Florida Retail Federation, American Chemistry Council and Florida Recycling Partnership." But the site's domain was registered by the American Chemistry Council, the trade association for chemical manufacturers that merged with the American Plastic Councils in 2002.
APBA also directs visitors to bagtheban.com, a site that tracks local plastic ban ordinances and encourages visitors to send form letters to state legislators opposing regulation of disposable bags. The website names Novolex as its author, but the domain was registered by the huge PR firm Edelman, Inc.
Edelman is also the PR firm hired by ALEC in 2012 to "help it deal with recent corporate fallout and opposition to its legislative positions" after the shooting of Trayvon Martin drew outrage over ALEC's role in spreading "Stand Your Ground" legislation. (ALEC’s current spokesman is also an Edelman alum.)
ALEC Corporate Members Lobby for More Preemption in Wisconsin
Plastics manufacturers weren't the only corporate interest groups pushing for preemption in Wisconsin. In addition to APBA, several of other organizations that lobbied for Wisconsin's AB 730 are major national lobbyists and ALEC corporate funders that have actively worked to undermine local democracy all across the country.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which has been a member of ALEC's Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force. ACC has fought for years to keep the U.S. hooked on disposable plastic products. Its lobbyists have previously been caught editing environmental textbooks in California to support plastic bag use.
ACC was even discovered to have written entire sections of a discredited U.S. Food and Drug Administration decision that claimed that bisphenol A was safe for all uses. (Since then, the public has demanded products, particularly for children, not contain bisphenol A, and the FDA has de-authorized the use of the substance in baby bottles, even though the EU has banned the product in response to health concerns raised by experts independent of industry.)
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) purports to be a nonpartisan trade group representing small business interests; however, NFIB primarily lobbies for big corporate interests and almost all of its political contributions support Republican candidates. Its funding sources have included the Koch brothers' Freedom Partners and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS.
NFIB became a member of ALEC's corporate board in 2014, and NFIB has actively opposed local control on other issues such as paid sick days. (CMD’s SourceWatch has documented NFIB’s fronting for huge corporate interests on its NFIBexposed.org site.)
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) is the state chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA) is the state chapter of the National Restaurant Association; both national organizations are ALEC members.
WMC and WRA were major supporters of the 2011 Wisconsin preemption bill that blocked Milwaukee's paid sick days ordinance. As CMD uncovered, a few months later that bill was brought to ALEC as a model for the Labor and Business Regulation Subcommittee of the ALEC Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force. The National Restaurant Association even prepared a target list and a map of state and local paid sick leave policies for meeting attendees.
Last but not least, Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC, the lobbying arm of Koch Industries, has had a seat and a vote on ALEC’s corporate board for more than two decades, and previously chaired it. Koch Industries and the Koch family fortune underwrite ALEC in numerous ways making Koch money the biggest funder of ALEC. The total amount in millions that the Koch brothers’ company, foundations, and grantees have given ALEC is unknown.
The Koch fortune has been built in part on petroleum processing, which creates compounds that can be used to manufacture plastic bags. (Other major petrochemical corporations also fund ALEC, like Exxon.)
ACCE's model resolution claims to let the "free market" determine how to deal with wasteful single-use containers like plastic bags. But as the legislative preemption strategy shows, there's little room for local democracy in ALEC's vision of freedom.
Lisa Graves, CMD's Executive Director, contributed to this story.