The Majestic Plastic Politician


For this Blog Action Day 2010: Water, I’m choosing to write about the recent experience our community had in the California legislature fighting against something that is choking the life out of our oceans and rivers: plastic bag pollution.

“In our community, we have gone from asking ‘why are things this way’ to ‘how can we change them’?”  This is what a community leader from Compton, CA kept on telling the Senators and Assembly members we visited at the Sacramento capitol last August 10th as part of a delegation of environmental activists that was coordinated by Heal the Bay.  We worked on ramping up support for legislation that would have reduced plastic bag pollution in the state of California by promoting the use of reusable bags in their place.  That piece of legislation was Assembly Bill # 1998, which had already been passed by the California State Assembly and needed to be approved by the state’s Senate as a next step.  Based on previous failed attempts to pass similar legislation, we knew that the road for this particular bill to finally become law would be a difficult one.  This time, however, we were encouraged by a number of exciting developments that seemed to point to a positive outcome this time around.

Unlike other past attempts, an unprecedented coalition of grocers, unions, cities, counties, and environmental groups had banded together to push the bill forward.  Even Governor Schwarzenegger, who had previously opposed similar legislation, supported it this time around, joining forces with Senate pro-term Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Perez.  With past opponents on our side this time around, our coalition of supporters had also diversified in a relatively short period of time.  Thanks to quite a bit of on-the-ground grassroots mobilizing in key districts, such as South Los Angeles, we raised a significant level of awareness and support for this piece of legislation leading up to our actual visit to the Sacramento capitol. Our South L.A. community partners held community cleanups and reusable bag giveaways months prior to the actual vote in several locations within Compton, Watts, and Southeast Los Angeles and held follow up meetings with local representatives at their field offices.

The experience that our team would go through as we built momentum to generate support for AB 1998 was certainly a memorable one and definitely eye-opening.  For starters, as already mentioned, we got to meet a few Senators face-to-face.  The opposition to AB 1998, the American Chemistry Council, had mobilized their crew of paid lobbyists to make sure the legislation was killed on the Senate floor.  When we got our chance to meet with the Senators and their staff, we were no longer abstracts on a piece of paper: we became real people to them, members of the districts they represented and we were certainly not paid lobbyists.  During our meetings, we took the opportunity to let the Senators know that we were tired of plastic bag pollution.  Communities in South L.A. tend to be the most polluted and frankly, we’re fed up with it.  Our community partners expressed their frustrations at how there’s plastic trash all surrounding the schools, which attract further negative activities and that the children have to walk through on their way to get to class every single day.  Everyone deserves to live in a healthy and clean environment and frankly it’s just plain inexcusable that our communities have to put up with such filth. 

Overall, it was extremely important for our coalition to have our representatives in Sacramento see that people of color like us are passionate about environmental issues, especially in light of certain troubling revelations.  A few of us got word that certain politicians’ staff had expressed skepticism that our people would “not know how to use reusable bags” or that we would simply not support forward-looking initiatives like this legislation because “economic issues were more important” to us.  While we all recognize that our communities struggle with many socio-economic issues, we found these assumptions to be incredibly patronizing.  Equally unsettling was the news that former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez had been hired as a lobbyist by the American Chemistry Council to kill AB 1998.  While becoming a lobbyist after leaving office is nothing new in our political system, finding out that Mr. Nuñez, someone that previously received awards for support of groundbreaking environment initiatives in the past actually joined the opposition was extremely disconcerting, to say the least.  On a personal note, as a Latino myself that works tirelessly to promote environmental stewardship in our Latino community, it was quite disappointing to hear of Mr. Nuñez’s latest job; I couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed.  As you may already know, AB 1998 was defeated on a 14-21 vote on the night of August 31st.  However, what happened the morning after the vote was equally eye opening. 

While our enviro community wallowed in the depression that ensued after the vote, it was our community partners that gave us a much needed boost.  We began receiving e-mails and comments from people that had become invested in our efforts, reminding us that while the American Chemistry Council may have won this battle, we must fight on to win the war against plastic pollution.  Sometimes it takes a friend to remind you of the bigger picture.  No, we cannot give up on this nor must we let up; not only do we owe it to our oceans, rivers, and overall environment to fight plastic pollution but we owe it to each other because ultimately, that is our biggest strength against big corporate money power: our people power.