ACC cannot stop every ban by itself

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Plastic bag makers have dodged the bullet — again. For the third year in a row, an effort to ban or tax plastic carryout bags in California has failed. Now the pressure will be on the plastics industry to show it’s serious about voluntary efforts to recycle plastic bags.

The California Senate late Aug. 31 rejected AB 1998, which would have banned the use of plastic bags starting in 2012 at large grocery stores. The 20-14 “no” vote was seven votes short of what was needed to pass the measure, which had been approved by the state Assembly in June.

The American Chemistry Council was the leading organization fighting against the ban. It succeeded with a combination of arguments, commercial messages and campaign contributions.

ACC argued that the bill threatened 1,000 manufacturing jobs in California and would have created both a hidden tax and a new, expensive $4 million bureaucracy.

In a state where the legislature is widely regarded to have its priorities completely screwed up, the tactic worked. (If you don’t live in California, just imagine your own state legislature’s reputation — and then imagine it was 10 times worse).

In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Keith Christman, ACC’s managing director for plastics markets, described what should be the next step, for both the state and the plastics industry.

“We should be working together to find litter and recycling solutions that don’t cost consumers more money and don’t put people out of work,” Christman wrote.

That makes sense, but I’m skeptical it will be successful. Now the issue will move to the front burner on the local level for many politicians and grass-roots activists. Already 12 U.S. communities have bans, including San Francisco, Fairfax, Palo Alto and Malibu, Calif.

Manhattan Beach, Calif., is appealing a court decision that overturned its planned ban, and politicians in other communities have said that if the state ban failed, they would introduce local bans.

So for ACC, it’s back to the Whac-a-Mole game, dealing with bans as they pop up in different places, always requiring an urgent response.

If anyone is paying attention, the plastics industry can point to cases where communities and retailers have been successful with voluntary efforts to reduce bag consumption and increase recycling.

In Britain, for example, grocers’ report dramatic success with a voluntary effort. Since a “Banish the Bags” campaign started there four years ago, retailers say they have cut the number of plastic bags used by 4 billion annually. Some 6.1 billion carrier bags were handed out in the first five months of 2010, a 43 percent drop from the 10.6 billion in 2006, according to the British Retail Consortium.

Supporters of a ban will feel that 6.1 billion bags is still far too many. But they should keep in mind that many of those bags are reused, recycled or disposed of properly.

Changing the behavior and attitudes — of both retailers and consumers — will take time and effort. Action is needed right away, and the effort needs to be on a scale similar to the push ACC made to convince California senators to vote against the ban.

Loepp is Plastics News managing editor and author of “The Plastics Blog.”