Bag bans grow despite industry efforts

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WASHINGTON (Jan. 26, 2:10 p.m. ET) — If there was any question about whether plastic bag bans would continue to be the most visible and vexing issue that confronts the plastics industry at the local and state level, those doubts were erased in late January.

On the heels of 2011, when the number of plastic bag bans in the U.S. nearly doubled to 37, two more counties — one in California and one in Hawaii — and another California city adopted bans on single-use plastic carryout bags, bringing the total number of plastic bag bans enacted nationwide to 40.

Altogether those bans — some of them countywide and others covering groups of counties — bring the number of U.S. cities with bans to 51, and the number of U.S. counties with bans to 12. In addition, Montgomery County, Md., and Washington, D.C., have a 5-cent fee on plastic bags handed out at retail and Basalt, Colo., has a 20-cent fee on plastic bags.

The two most recent bans were enacted a day apart in Alameda County, Calif., and in Millbrae, Calif.

Alameda County Waste Management Authority adopted a bag on plastic bags Jan. 25 that will apply to all unincorporated areas and the 14 cities in the county — similar to the approach used in the ban adopted late last year by San Luis Obispo County. The 14 cities in Alameda County can opt out of the ban, which goes into effect next Jan. 1, 2013, but they would have to do so before March 2, 2012.

Just a day earlier, the city of Millbrae adopted a ban on single-use plastic bags that will go into effect Sept. 1. Similarly, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi signed into law Jan. 17 a ban on single-use plastic bags that will go into effect Jan. 17, 2013, on the Big Island.

In addition, at least a dozen communities — including large cities such as Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego in California, and Austin, Texas — are currently weighing proposals to either tax or ban plastic carryout bags at retail. What’s more, the state of Washington is considering two bills, one each in the House and Senate, to ban plastic bags.

“There are maybe a half-dozen or more jurisdictions with similar legislation teed up and ready to go,” said Mark Murray, executive director of the Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste. “The interest in these policies and bans at the local level is strong,” particularly along the coast and in big cities, he said.

Another California legislative insider agreed. “Plastic bag bans will be really active this year. I expect to see something happening in maybe a dozen communities, including some that are significant in size. The bans will continue despite the efforts of the industry to stop them.”

However, it is unclear whether California will enact a statewide bag ban, using the two-year bill, AB 298. That bill, already approved by the Assembly and pending in a Senate committee, prohibits manufacturers from selling or distributing reusable bags unless they meet certain requirements.

“It’s a roll of the die whether we can get the votes to pursue a statewide ban” this year, said Murray, noting that it will be a “tumultuous year politically” because of reapportionment in California and a change in the state election rules that will propel the top two vote-getters from the primary into the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Despite the escalating number of plastic bag-ban initiatives at the local level, plastics industry representatives and bag manufacturer Hilex Poly Co. LLC, based in Hartsville, S.C., said they remain confident that legislators will pull back on restrictions and taxes as the industry presents its side of the story, including the adverse economic impact that could result from such bans.

“When we get the opportunities to speak to the facts, it has an impact,” said Mark Daniels, vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly, which also operates a recycling plant in North Vernon, Ind., that recycled nearly 27 million pounds of plastic bags and film in 2011.

Hilex Poly also purchased another 12 million pounds of plastic film and bags in 2011 that it had other companies recycle for it at plants in Southern California, Michigan and Texas.

“We are trying to get the education out that bags can and are being recycled, and that their manufacture uses less energy and produces less greenhouse gases” than paper or reusable bag manufacturing, said Daniels.

“The plastic bag industry employs 10,000 people in the U.S., and accounts for another 25,000-30,000 indirect jobs,” Daniels said. “It is a multibillion [dollar] economic engine in the U.S. We believe legislators at the state level are taking our messages into consideration.”

For example Hilex Poly, in its written and oral testimony to the state of Washington, has pointed out that there are 1,200 people in Washington involved in the plastic bag and related industries. “We continue to point to the re-use rate for plastic bags” and the amount of plastic film and bags that is being recycled, said Daniels. “We are much more interested in a common-sense solution that will grow jobs.”

Those arguments have resonated to a certain degree with legislators at the state level — there is still no statewide ban in the U.S. Yet local communities continue to embrace bag bans and fees, which is prompting the industry to develop more numbers on the potential local impact of bans.

“We can bring a lot of information to the table that can put a face on the impact that would occur locally” if a ban were to be enacted, said Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., which this year took over industrywide responsibility for fighting the bans from the American Chemistry Council.

SPI, for example, plans to pull together information on the value chain involved in getting plastic bags to grocery stores, so that the full impact on jobs can be understood, said Jon Kurrle, senior vice president of industry and government affairs for SPI. “We can articulate that there is a significant job footprint and what that the economic impact would be,” he said.

Washington-based SPI also is looking at other ways to ward off bans. “We are developing unique initiatives to fight these battles in a different way,” said Carteaux, who declined to elaborate on what those initiatives might be. “We want people to look at the true facts and put those into the scheme of things that they are considering.”

Daniels of Hilex Poly argues that the interest in bag bans is “California-centric.”

However, while almost half of those bans — 19 — are in California, there are another 21 divided among nine different states. And that doesn’t include taxes on bags in Montgomery County, Md.; Basalt, Colo.; and Washington, D.C.

Daniels added that it is “difficult” for Hilex Poly to “combat legislation in smaller, environmentally conscious communities” and that the company is largely using social media and social messaging in an effort to “get the environmental benefits of plastic bags into the consciousness of people” at the local level.

“Our message points are valid and continue to drive home the attributes of our products and the recyclability of our products,” said Daniels. “Plastics are the last frontier of what you can recycle out of your home. We have to elevate our level of discussion to get out the true facts about plastic bags. Bans on plastic bags only increase greenhouse gases and take away from grocers the incentive to recycle these products.”

But those arguments aren’t likely to succeed with many legislators because plastic bags are made from a non-renewable source, natural gas, and remain a highly visible waste, litter and marine-debris problem, one legislative source said.

The communities in California with plastic bag bans are Calabas, Fairfield, Long Beach, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Millbrae, Monterey, Palo Alto, Pasadena, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, Sunnyvale and the following counties: Los Angeles, Marin, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, which have enacted bans for the unincorporated areas.

In addition, San Luis Obispo and Alameda counties have bans that apply to both unincorporated areas and incorporated cities. In San Luis Obispo, that’s seven: San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles and Pismo Beach. In Alameda, that’s 14 cities: Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Dublin, Emeryville, Fremont, Hayward, Livermore, Newark, Oakland, Piedmont, Pleasanton, San Leandro and Union City.

Outside of California, there are plastic bag bans in Portland, Ore.; Seattle, Bellingham, Edmonds and Mukilteo, Wash.; the Texas cities of Brownsville, Fort Stockton and South Padre Island; the Colorado communities of Aspen, Telluride and Carbondale; East Hampton, Southhampton and Rye, N.Y.; Westport, Conn.; Bethel Bay and Hooper, Alaska, and three of the four counties (islands) in the state of Hawaii—Kaui, Maui, and the Big Island.

In addition, three counties in North Carolina — Hyde, Currituck and Dare — together enacted a plastic ban. Montgomery County, Md., and Washington, D.C., have a 5-cent fee on plastic carryout bags and Basalt, Colo., has a 20-cent fee on plastic carryout bags.