By David Agnew
Summary: Through the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, liberal coastal elites are imposing their policy agenda throughout the country – launching state and local campaigns to ban products, block energy development and challenge private property rights – all the while enjoying the full benefits of IRS 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. The organization, founded to protect oceans, waterways and natural spaces, today openly functions as a full-time advocacy campaign machine. Despite strict tax exempt limitations for “direct action,” legislative lobbying and other campaign operations, Surfrider Foundation has managed to thrive financially and make campaigns the centrality of its existence. It all hinges on the word “substantial” and the quality of Surfrider’s own record keeping.
[Editor’s note: See below for a sidebar article on the Bag Ban, and why it’s a bad idea]
With a name like Surfrider Foundation, a corporate logo that displays a gently rolling swell and members who describe themselves as fun-seeking beach goers, one might expect that the Surfrider Foundation is a coastal tourism board or other educational organization. Yet with chapters around the world and in non-coastal cities such as Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte and even snowy Minneapolis, this organization can more accurately be described as the grassroots political advocacy machine that’s responsible for inserting the agenda of coastal liberals into the fabric of every other American’s life.
Surfrider today functions as a one-stop advocacy firm that writes bills and ordinances, coaches local chapters how to develop and launch direct action political campaigns, recruits stables of grassroots advocates, fundraises in support of campaigns via foundation, corporate and individual donors, and most importantly, pressures politicians to pass their agenda. But the depth of Surfrider political activity is obscuredin public reporting records.
Surfrider Foundation traces its origins back to 1984. It was founded for the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches. The organization is a non-profit public charity that wields a “powerful activist network” to grow its lengthy list of successful political and legislative campaigns. Unlike most other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, Surfrider Foundation markets itself as a “direct action” group. Despite strict tax exempt limitations for “direct action,” legislative lobbying and other campaign operations, Surfrider Foundation has managed to thrive financially and make campaigns the centrality of its existence. It all hinges on the word “substantial” and the quality of Surfrider’s own record keeping.
Numerous publicly available records – some of which have recently been removed from the Surfrider website – document the organization’s extensive political involvement. From legislative campaigns to litigation fights and activist education courses, the Surfrider Foundation devotes significant time, energy and communication to political and policy intervention. The only place campaigns and political engagement don’t appear central are in Surfrider Foundation’s annual compliance filings with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as required by law.
For working so hard in the lobbying space, Surfrider reports spending practically nothing on lobbying. The organization claims its overt political activity is permissible under its tax-exempt classification simply because it doesn’t spend “that much” on its lobbying activity. But whether it’s possible for the organization’s campaign presence – its websites, campaign materials, activation email systems, rallies, donations and fly-ins – to exist on the shoestring budget Surfrider reports to the government is uncertain and even improbable for those familiar with what direct action political engagement costs.
Surfrider Foundation financial filings only raise more questions. Key differences exist between state and federal filings. Large donations to support state-level legislative policy agendas are unreported in national filings but are presented under stricter state filing rules. The method of accounting for and reporting staff and volunteer time devoted to Surfrider campaigns raises additional questions. Later on, we will discuss how Surfrider created a program called Surfrider University to coach members to conduct local chapter campaign activities in ways that could possibly obscure lobbying activity and facilitate under-reporting.
Is it plausible to believe a seven-figure organization that openly devotes so much of its time and chapter efforts to direct political engagement and political instruction is doing so for $20,000 a year?
THE NON-PROFIT STANDARD
The American people have expectations for tax exempt organizations, and certainly for the types of activities that can be undertaken while waving the banner of a public nonprofit charity. Those expectations tend to mirror what the IRS describes as acceptable behavior for 501(c)(3) organizations.
To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) … it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.[i]
Like all government policy, that seemingly straightforward standard requires a deeper dive. Where “attempts to influence legislation” or lobbying is concerned, the IRS says:
… no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.
Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure…
An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.[ii]
The candidate prohibition is clearer cut:
501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.[iii]
Surfrider makes no secret that it exists to be a campaign organization and to achieve measurable “victories” that shift the balance of power toward its coastal members and their policy values. Surfrider is also a 501(c)(3), and it has been for more than 30 years, though the magnitude of its political activity has certainly increased.
THE EVOLUTION OF SURFRIDER FOUNDATION FROM EDUCATION TO ACTIVISM
Surfrider Foundation got its start in 1984 in San Clemente, California, filing articles of incorporation with the California Secretary of State’s office, and subsequently received 501(c)(3) non-profit status.[iv]
From its beginnings, the Surfrider Foundation has been civically and politically engaged – going toe-to-toe with California Parks officials, County Boards of Supervisors and, early on, even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But in 1999 the organization took a step further into the realm of direct action political lobbying by electing the section 501(h) expenditure test, which would permit unlimited political and campaign activity on the Foundation’s part, providing expenditures for those activities fell below a certain percentage of the organization’s revenue.
The IRS offers the “expenditure test” as an acceptable way for 501(c)(3) public charities to measure lobbying activity and describes the test this way:
Under the expenditure test, the extent of an organization’s lobbying activity will not jeopardize its tax-exempt status, provided its expenditures, related to such activity, do not normally exceed an amount specified in section 4911. This limit is generally based upon the size of the organization and may not exceed $1,000,000…
Under the expenditure test, an organization that engages in excessive lobbying activity over a four-year period may lose its tax-exempt status, making all of its income for that period subject to tax. Should the organization exceed its lobbying expenditure dollar limit in a particular year, it must pay an excise tax equal to 25 percent of the excess.[v]
The political expenditure limit is set relative to an organization’s size and the sum total of its “exempt” expenditures in a given year. The more you spend on non-political things, the more you can spend on political lobbying, up to $1 million for the largest organizations.
In 2014, Surfrider’s legal lobbying limit was $433,841, indicating its exempt expenditures exceeded $5 million. The organization’s revenue that year was even larger. In that year, however, Surfrider claimed to have spent just $10,125 on lobbying activities while its website proclaims a list of 40 victories during the same time period. The vast majority of those victories are tied to campaigns where public officials at local and state levels passed ordinances, bills and proposals lobbied and, in some cases, developed by Surfrider. Divided among 40 victories, Surfrider’s political expenditures for 2014 would amount to just $253 per win. And since 2010, the organization reports it has never spent in excess of $22,589 on lobbying in a single year.
Surfrider’s compliance with 501(c)(3) and 501(h) standards is alleged solely on the basis of its self-reporting.
|Year||Surfrider’s Reported Total Lobbying Spending||Surfrider’s 501(h) Total Lobbying Limit|
With no limit to the time and energy it can devote to campaign activity, the Surfrider Foundation website claims the organization has “evolved into one of the largest non-profit grassroots organizations dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network.”[vi]
A core staff of nearly 50 individuals helps Surfrider Foundation advance its politics, engage in litigation battles and bring awareness to ocean issues. Staff additionally oversee financial record-keeping, fundraising, field operations in various states, the development of campaign curricula and basic human resources. They also support the organization’s 84 state chapters and 30 high school and college clubs, as well as Surfrider’s more than 250,000 supporters, volunteers and activists.[vii]
Notably, where peer organizations, such as the Sierra Club, have taken measures to ensure lobbying lines are not being crossed – by establishing The Sierra Club Foundation (SCF), an independent 501(c)(3) public charity, as an entity separate from The Sierra Club, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization – the Surfrider Foundation conducts all its business – lobbying, campaigns, education and outreach – under one roof.
In his 2010 annual letter to donors and members, former Surfrider Foundation Chief Executive Officer Jim Moriarty stated clearly for the first time that the Surfrider Foundation would measure its success, and the successful investment of donor contributions, by campaign victories rather than educational metrics, such as improvements in awareness or shifts in public polling:
We measure victories for a number of reasons. It is a business truism that you cannot manage what you do not measure. Few things are as important to us as organizing communities toward a meaningful conclusion that preserves our coasts. Perhaps more important to you is the return on the investment you have made in the Surfrider Foundation. We are focused on our campaigns, learning from losses and sharing best practices from our victories because we are also looking to optimize the return on the investment you have made with us.
That year and in future years, Moriarty and subsequent CEO Chad Nelson continued to state in annual reports and other publications that campaigns are the metric Surfrider uses to evaluate return on investment for contributions. And Surfrider-affiliated campaigns and self-reported victories have increased year over year, yet the lobbying expenditures the Foundation’s reported to the IRS remained almost flat.
WHO PAYS FOR SURFRIDER?
Since 2010, Surfrider’s revenue has held steady around $6 million dollars. These funds come from membership dues – anyone who contributes more than $25 is considered a member – as well as other contributions and gifts. In 2014, Surfrider had at most 50,346 members paying the minimum $25.
Beyond dues, Surfrider brings in millions of dollars from “Other Contributions, Gifts and Grants.” In 2014, the organization garnered more than $3.4 million in gifts, much of which came from large corporations, most notably the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since 2003, the Packard Foundation alone has contributed almost $3 million to Surfrider.
Within that same time period, Surfrider’s top 10 foundation donors are as listed:
- The David and Lucile Packard Foundation ($2,748,500)
- Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation ($782,512)
- Forrest C. & Frances H. Lattner Foundation ($775,000)
- The Marisla Foundation ($720,000)
- The Offield Family Foundation ($633,782)
- The Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, Inc. ($498,900)
- Meyer Memorial Trust ($418,750)
- Hawaii Community Foundation ($329,975)
- The Bullitt Foundation ($260,000)
- McBeth Foundation ($240,000)
Volkswagen of American and Abercrombie & Fitch/Hollister are other notable corporate donors, each contributing between $50,000 and $200,000 in 2013. Interestingly, also in 2013, the California Department of Fish & Game donated up to $99,999, per Surfrider’s annual report, while the California Coastal Commission contributed between $2,500 and $4,999.
Numerous celebrities have financially contributed to Surfrider as well and have had visible presence at some of its notable campaign victories.
By its own admission, though, Surfrider acknowledges that it is chapter-level campaign activity that drives member recruitment – which is synonymous with fundraising. When donations and membership are urged on its site, prospective donors are told 80 percent of what they give funds Surfrider programs and campaigns. The breakdown between those two categories is not listed.
CAMPAIGNS. THEY’RE WHAT DEFINE US. AND MAKE US MONEY.
The centrality of political engagement and campaign activity is no secret, publicly or privately, for the Surfrider Foundation. “Campaigns define us,” Surfrider’s website reads. A video published on Surfrider’s YouTube page states, “When we are at our best, we are a direct action organization… when we turn out 10, 20, 100 people to city hall to support a ban on plastic bags.”[viii]
Heavy campaign emphasis is upheld in Surfrider Foundation materials, online properties, chapter standards (each must have at least one active campaign) and educational curricula. In a 2014 Eastern U.S. Chapter Conference presentation entitled, “Using Campaigns to Drive Chapter Activities,” a Surfrider chapter manager instructs, “Let your campaigns do the recruitment work for you.”[ix]
Though its chapter presence and campaign activity spans many regions, Surfrider has only reported lobbying activity at the state level in California, Florida and New York. At the federal level, Secretary of the Senate filings indicate the Surfrider Foundation has not registered to lobby (or retained a lobbyist).
To support its California lobbying efforts in the second through fourth quarters of 2014 tied to SB968, which directed the State Lands Commission to use a right-of-way easement to allow public access to the Martins Beach in San Mateo County, Surfrider hired counsel to lobby on the issue, but claims to have spent just $1 on the effort. No other lobbying activity has been reported in California since the organization’s 501(h) filing.
In a New York state filing, Surfrider claims it spent $423,900 and $333,432 on lobbying and promotions in 2013 and 2012, respectively. The amounts are startlingly more than the $22,000 and $13,000 lobbying figures reported on Surfrider’s IRS forms.
Surfrider acknowledges that personnel and volunteer hours, travel and lodging costs, and administrative costs must be factored into the reporting of organization campaign efforts. The IRS requires all time contributions to be segregated as an activity or expenditure and valued according to the experience, knowledge and skills of the participating individual.
And yet, in a sample campaign budget included in its “Chapter Resource Book,” posted online in 2010, Surfrider valued the “in-kind cash value of chapter time” at $10 an hour. This value applied equally to all staff members, from interns to chair persons.[x]
In just one example, it is highly unlikely that preparing, training and arranging for dozens of Surfrider staff and members to travel to Washington, D.C. to visit U.S. Congressmen (as the group has done on more than one occasion) would be fully covered under this $10 per hour blended rate.
400 VICTORIES AND COUNTING
Surfrider claims credit for more than 400 campaign and legislative victories around the country since 2006. The growing number of local plastic bag and polystyrene ordinances adopted throughout the country – beginning with San Francisco’s bag ban in 2007 – and the recently upheld statewide plastic bag ban in California are testaments to Surfrider’s reach and political acumen. In fact, the successful defeat of a voter referendum to overturn California’s bag ban was one of Surfrider’s top campaign victories for 2016. The Foundation hosts an impressive advocacy website geared to the Yes on Proposition 67 cause.
Today, the organization lists 99 active campaigns throughout the United States.
At the most basic level, the ways in which Surfrider talks about itself – its organizational make-up, mission and activities – are problematic from the nonprofit perspective. The IRS explicitly states that 501(c)(3) groups may not be action organizations, and yet, in a document uploaded to its website in 2014, Surfrider characterizes itself as a “direct action” group, a direct action group engaged in roughly 100 campaigns of a highly political nature.[xi]
Among its 2016 efforts, Surfrider engaged in Florida to challenge state-level legislation that would limit local governments from regulating polystyrene. Federally, Surfrider hosted a “lobby event” in Washington, D.C., for “Surfrider chapters and the coastal recreation industry to demonstrate a strong presence” in the nation’s capital.
Surfrider’s website and video channels log its priority efforts and boast the organization’s prowess in influencing local, state and federal legislation.
In a September 2015 blog post, Surfrider wrote it was “shift[ing] [its] efforts to getting the Florida legislature to pass a pilot program to ban single-use plastic bags across Florida in 2016.”
In December 2015, while urging Congressional support for federal BEACH Act funding, Surfrider asked members to “Please contact your Federal Representatives to let them know you support the National Ocean Policy.” The same month Surfrider claimed it was “advocating at the local, state and now at the federal level for the regulation” of microbeads. Surfrider also wrote that it “has been working with the cities of Falmouth and Freeport, Maine to draft strong ordinances that exclude [reusable plastic bag] loopholes, and in Barrington, Rhode Island, we’re working to help amend local law to require fees on reusable film plastic bags.”
In total, Surfrider claims 408 victories since 2006, hundreds of which were campaign victories, explicitly seeking to influence federal, state or local legislation. Surfrider claims a record 61 campaign victories were racked up in 2016 alone.[xii] Surfrider says its campaign efforts secured 41 “coastal victories” in 2015, roughly 30 of which involved influencing legislation.[xiii] In 2014, Surfrider also ran close to 40 successful campaigns; nearly 30 which involved influencing legislation.[xiv]
ENDORSING & NON-ENDORSING CANDIDATES
In addition to the restrictions on substantial lobbying, 501(c)(3) groups are also “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”[xv]
Surfrider has taken actions that could be seen as troubling, given that prohibition.
In March 2011, The San Louis Obispo Tribune reported that a “collection of environmental groups,” including the Surfrider Foundation, told Governor Jerry Brown that they do not consider San Louis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson qualified to fill a vacant spot on the California Coastal Commission.”
The “ad hoc environmental committee,” which also included representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council and seven other groups, “endorsed Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf and Ventura City Councilman Brian Brennan.” The committee, according to the Tribune, “singled out Gibson for non-endorsement.”
The California Coastal Commission contributed between $2,500 and $4,999 to Surfrider in 2013.[xvi]
BALLOT INITIATIVE ADVOCACY
In addition to its robust support for Proposition 67 in 2016, Surfrider’s earlier activities around ballot initiatives raise additional questions about the organization’s lobbying claims.
In October 2014, Surfrider donated $49,500 to the California Conservation Campaign, a ballot measure committee that supported California’s 2014 Propositions 1 and 2 – the issuance of $7.12 billion of debt to fund public water improvements. Both Propositions passed.[xvii] That donation alone is almost five times more than Surfrider disclosed spending on lobbying in 2014 in its filing with the IRS.
Under IRS rules, ballot initiative advocacy counts as lobbying activity – and therefore, must be accounted for within financial reports for tax purposes.
ENROLL NOW AT SURFRIDER UNIVERSITY
As member and volunteers are deemed critical to campaign success, the political education of Surfrider Foundation members at the chapter level is a top priority.
As part of the Surfrider University curricula once available for download off the Surfrider website, are courses entitled “Campaigns 101,” “Lobbying 101” and “Advocacy 101.”
The campaign presentation states, “As a direct action advocacy organization, campaigns are our primary means of advancing the Surfrider Foundation mission.”[xviii] This organizational emphasis on campaigns trickles down to the chapter level, where members are reminded, “Campaigns are the most important thing in your chapter – it is why your chapter exists. Think of them first. Talk about them first in your chapter meetings.” Campaign victories, which are defined as decisions from decision-making bodies that “positively influence the coastal environment” (i.e. further Surfrider’s mission) are used to measure chapter and Surfrider Foundation effectiveness.
The lesson includes a graphic (below) showing how chapters should order their activities around campaigns and for the support of campaigns.[xix] Notably, chapters are instructed that the broad goal of “raising awareness,” or educating, does not satisfy the definition of a campaign. Chapter focus must be on deliberate efforts to influence votes, legislation and policies.
Campaigns 101 explains that Surfrider campaigns are distinct from Surfrider programs: “The campaign is seeking a YES vote on one decision, whereas the program is providing ongoing education tools to support that campaign as well as other chapter initiatives, like changing consumer behavior, informing about single-use plastics, and supporting additional … campaigns.”[xx] Program toolkits, however, push members toward campaign activations as well.
The course goes on to instruct local chapters on how best to pick targets and run successful campaigns. The advice includes statements such as, “The BEST target is someone you can sway to your side with influence, and who is a key decision-maker with his/her own influence to apply on other decision-makers… you would want to target a legislator who sits on the committee hearing the bill, depending on your state.”
The necessity of the IRS expenditure test for Surfrider is abundantly clear since the organization is able to maintain its tax-exempt status while championing nearly 100 campaigns that it describes as “movements” to change policies and seek specific legislative outcomes from decision makers.
Surfrider University’s Advocacy 101 course explains the Foundation’s “practice of Direct Action Organizing as an advocacy strategy.” Participants are told that course completion will help them, “learn the basic principles of Direct Action Organizing and [Surfrider’s] vehicle for implementing Direct Action tactics.”
Direct action groups lobby for themselves. individuals affected by the issues are the ones testifying, writing reports and occasionally “disrupting the hearing” and “blocking the entrance to the building.”
Surfrider University, Advocacy 101
The “direct action” language appears repeatedly throughout the course, in spite of the IRS caution that 501(c)(3) organizations not be “action organizations” that attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of their activities.
On the spectrum of non-profit organizations, the Advocacy 101 course aligns Surfrider with Direct Action groups. Rather than hiring lobbyists or legal representatives to represent members’ interests, Surfrider says Direct Action Groups lobby for themselves. Individuals affected by the issues for which policy resolution is sought are the ones testifying, writing reports and occasionally “disrupting the hearing” and “blocking the entrance to the building.” While Surfrider’s educational and reporting efforts are acknowledged in the Advocacy course, the instructor notes stress that “the main focus of our efforts is advocacy, and some of our finest advocacy moments are when we engage in Direct Action Organizing.”
Of course, how this is possible within the 501(c)(3) structure is briefly addressed, too, within the instructor notes:
Surfrider “take[s] an option where the IRS lets us spend a certain low-percentage of our budget on things like passing laws, but if it goes too high, donations to us would no longer be tax deductible. If we had a full time lobbyist in Sacramento or DC – if that was where money was going, donations to us would not be tax deductible. But we get lots of laws passed through chapters who don’t often spend lots of money on these campaigns.
How to accurately track the cost of member and volunteer time and tactics employed to execute chapter campaigns and advocacy efforts was not covered.
Surfrider’s definition of lobbying is another reason for pause.
- For its 2014 Florida Chapter Conference, Surfrider prepared a presentation entitled “Lobbying 101.” It presented “laws of the land” to members, including: “No substantial part of the activities of Surfrider can go towards propaganda or attempts to influence legislation. However only legislative lobbying is restricted, not lobbying in general.”
- “Approximately 20% of Surfrider’s total budget is allowed for all lobbying and a quarter of that (5%) is allowed for grassroots lobbying.”
- “You must report funds and hours to HQ.”[xxi]
In 2014, Surfrider reported in its filing with the IRS a total lobbying expenditure limit of $433,841. If the organization had actually spent 20 percent of its budget on lobbying, its true spend would be 283 percent higher than the IRS expenditure limit.
RISE ABOVE PLASTICS
One of Surfrider’s three core programs, Rise Against Plastics, fuses education and advocacy. The program exists to increase awareness and also promote recycling and a reduction in plastic bag usage.
The program includes a published “activist toolkit” that guides members through a six-step pathway to enact a plastic reduction ordinance. Elements in the plan include instruction to “work with government & draft a proposed ordinance, “know your opposition,” “attend City Council meetings” and “rock the vote.”
While educational, the prescriptive material is further evidence of Surfrider’s emphasis on member and chapter-level political activism. It also represents another investment of time, money and creative capital on the part of Surfrider headquarters to mobilize its membership and chapter networks in Direct Action Organizing.[xxii]
As a self-described direct action organization whose primary purpose is campaigning, Surfrider appears to flout many of the standards Americans hold when they think of non-profit organizations. Were Surfrider to be judged by the IRS’s substantial part test, it would most surely lose its tax-exempt status. It remains tax-exempt solely because it claims to spend a minuscule amount of money on its political activities.
How could something that takes so much time, energy and coordination – something Surfrider admits is its primary focus – cost so little? Is it possible that an organization with roughly 50 full-time staff helping to orchestrate 99 active political “campaigns” – and the rallies, fly-ins, websites, collateral development and activation plans that go along with them – spends barely $20,000 a year on lobbying?
Whether or not the Surfrider Foundation is functioning in violation of its tax-exempt status can only be resolved by a closer look from the IRS. The small lobbying claims, discrepancies in filings, and missing accounting of political contributions to campaign funds each demand scrutiny.
The title non-profit tax-exempt organization is supposed to mean something. To honor the taxpayers who subsidize the existence of 501(c)(3) organizations, there has to be accountability and quality control for those who carry the designation. And while, in recent years, the IRS was busy targeting conservative organizations, it doesn’t appear Surfrider has ever been challenged.
SIDEBAR: The Bag Ban
Ten years ago, to the Surfrider Foundation and other groups began to lobby for product bans – especially bans on plastic retail bags – claiming bans would produce a windfall of environmental benefits, including:
- Lower overall liter and marine debris rates
- Lower landfill rates
- Improvements in recycling systems
- Reductions in resource consumption
- Lower municipal operating costs (aka measurable savings for cities and counties)
Then and now, these environmental claims hinge on the theory that removing specific products from waste and litter streams will directly lead to less litter and waste overall. Possible consequences are not factored. The impacts of alternative products are not considered; nor is the makeup of local litter and waste. Bans are simply presented as silver bullets that will lead to reductions in waste, marine debris and litter.
But data suggests otherwise – that little, if anything, stands to be gained from banning products – especially in the case of plastic retail bags. For context, bags comprise a negligible portion of waste and litter streams (less than 0.3% of municipal solid waste according to EPA figures[xxiii] and just 0.6% of litter according to a 2009 national survey[xxiv]). In terms of marine debris, the 2016 Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup found bags make up only 1.7% of items found on beaches and waterways and 0.03% of coastal litter by volumes.[xxv]
But regardless of scientific data, and under pressure from environmental interests, some governments have enacted bag bans anyway. Almost immediately, their regulatory ordinances are labeled successes simply because bans do make products “go away.” But while product bans can eliminate and reduce the presence of specific products in waste and litter streams, post-legislation research shows a different story:
- Banned products tend to be replaced by alternatives in the waste and litter streams at an equal or greater rate, a net negative for the environment. In the case of plastic bags, replacements are typically thicker, more resource-intensive bags that aren’t re-used sufficiently before disposal.
- Compliance costs for businesses and consumers run in the tens of millions every year in large cities, and can cost millions each year for smaller cities due to fees associated with bag regulations and the higher cost of alternative products.
Banning products that represent fractional amounts of waste and litter will make those products appear to “go away.” But improvements for overall waste and litter will be hard to find. And with replacement products filling the gap, there will be other consequences too – for consumers and the environment.
Bag Laws & Ordinances Don’t Reduce Litter or Waste
A 2015 Austin, TX study (done two years after the enactment of Austin’s bag ban) found that plastic retail bags were never a significant portion of litter and that the ban produced negligible benefits. Plastic retail bags were just 0.12 percent of litter before the ban and comprised 0.03 percent after.[xxvi] If all the dots on the right represented litter in Austin, the ban would have impacted just one. Where waste is concerned, post-ban, a slightly greater tonnage of thicker bag waste filled the void left by banned bags in the municipal curbside recycling program waste stream.[xxvii]
California’s Bag Ban on Track to Increase Plastic Consumption
California’s bag ban eliminated the use of thin plastic retail bags, but authorized thicker pay-for bags instead. Consumers are using fewer of these thicker bags, but the increased thickness has California on pace to increase the total tonnage of plastic used at the checkout by almost 30 percent. A lack of re-use and the increased thickness of approved bags are undermining desired results.[xxviii] Since implementation of the ban in November 2016 the average grocery stores has been selling more than 50,000 reusable bags per month and the State is on pace to consume more than 2.2 billion reusable bags per year.
California Plastic Bag and Polystyrene Bans Didn’t Reduce Storm Drain Litter
Alameda County assessed storm drain litter before and after imposing bans on plastic retail bags and polystyrene food service products in 2011 and 2014. Despite the obvious conclusion that both bans had removed bags and polystyrene, overall trash rates were not significantly different and even increased.[xxix] San Jose has lauded its ordinance as reducing bag litter in storm drains by as much as 89 percent, but the same litter surveys showed paper bag litter increased by 87 percent in the ban’s wake, showing that replacement products have growing impact.[xxx]
Plastic Retail Bags are Not a Major Component of Litter in the United States
A 2015 report, ER Planning PR Bags Report Brief – 2015 Litter Survey Rankings, looked at all statistical litter surveys in North America and found that plastic retail bags typically rank around 35 in the list of common litter items and are less than 2 percent of litter by count.[xxxi] A 2016 Ocean Conservancy report found plastic retail bags accounted for just 1.6 percent of the 4.8 million items collected during an international coastal cleanup.[xxxii]
[vi] [vi] Surfrider Foundation, Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax, IRS Form 990, 2013
[vii] Surfrider Website, Accessed at http://www.surfrider.org/pages/mission, Aug. 12, 2015
[ix] Using Campaigns to Drive Chapter Activities (Presentation by Chapter Manager Sarah Damron) Surfrider Foundation.
[x] Surfrider Website, Accessed at https://chapternet.surfrider.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/SF-Sourcebook-GUTS.pdf, Aug. 4, 2015
[xi] Surfrider Website, Accessed at https://chapternet.surfrider.org/wp-content/uploads/gravity_forms/26-101473f12851654d80693ff81b155354/2014/10/Using-Campaigns-to-Drive-Chapter-Activities.ppt, Aug. 12, 2015
[xii] 2016 Year in Review, Surfrider Website, Accessed at http://www.surfrider.org/coastal-blog/entry/2016-year-in-review-what-a-year, Jan. 31, 2017.
[xiii] 2015 Year in Review and Campaigns pages, Surfrider Website, Accessed at http://www.surfrider.org/coastal-blog/entry/year-in-review-2015-victory-report and https://www.surfrider.org/campaigns, January 31, 2017.
[xiv] 2014 Year in Review, 300 Coastal Victories and Campaigns pages, Surfrider Website, Accessed at http://www.surfrider.org/coastal-blog/entry/2014-in-review, http://www.surfrider.org/press-center/entry/surfrider-foundation-celebrates-300-coastal-victories and https://www.surfrider.org/campaigns, January 31, 2017.
[xv] [xv] IRS Website, Accessed at http://www.irs.gov/Charities-&-Non-Profits/Charitable-Organizations/The-Restriction-of-Political-Campaign-Intervention-by-Section-501(c)(3)-Tax-Exempt-Organizations, Aug. 12, 2015
[xvi] 2013 Annual Report, Surfrider Foundation, Donors, page 18, Accessed at http://surfridercdn.surfrider.org/images/uploads/publications/Surfrider-Foundation-Ann-Report-2013_web.pdf, January 31, 2017.
[xvii] National Institute on Money in State Politics
[xviii] Surfrider Foundation Website, Accessed at https://chapternet.surfrider.org/resources/learn/courses/campaigns-101/short-course/, Feb. 2, 2016
[xix] Surfrider Website, Accessed at https://chapternet.surfrider.org/resources/learn/courses/campaigns-101/short-course/, Feb. 22, 2016
[xx] [xx] Surfrider Website, Accessed at https://chapternet.surfrider.org/resources/learn/courses/campaigns-101/short-course/, Feb. 22, 2016
[xxiii] All high-density polyethylene film, of which plastic retail bags are a subset, accounted for less than 0.3% of U.S. landfill waste according to EPA figures. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013, Environmental Protection Agency, June 2015.
[xxiv] Steven R. Stein, ER Planning Report Brief: Plastic Retail Bags in Litter, Environmental Resources Planning, LLC, 2009.
[xxv] 30th Anniversary International Coastal Cleanup, Marine Debris Project Area Annual Report, International Coastal Cleanup and the Ocean Conservancy, 2016.
[xxvi] Environmental Effects of the Single Use Bag Ordinance in Austin, Texas, Austin Resource Recovery, 10 June 2015.
[xxvii] Environmental Effects of the Single Use Bag Ordinance in Austin, Texas, Austin Resource Recovery, 10 June 2015.
[xxviii] Gayle Putrich, Analysis: Bag ban could up plastic use, Plastics News, 19 September 2016.
[xxix] Alameda Countywide Storm Drain Trash Monitoring and Characterization Project, Technical Report, EOA Inc., 4 September 2014.
[xxx] Addendum to the Final Environmental Impact Report, Single Use Carryout Bag Ordinance (File No. PP13-078), City of San Jose, July 2013.
[xxxi] ER Planning PR Bags Report Brief – 2015 Litter Survey Rankings, Environmental Resources Planning, LLC, 2015.
[xxxii] 30th Anniversary International Coastal Cleanup, Marine Debris Project Area Annual Report, International Coastal Cleanup and the Ocean Conservancy, 2016.