Plastic bag efforts not enough … so far

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The plastic bag industry has taken a number of initiatives to be good environment stewards.

Bag manufacturer Hilex Poly Co. LLC, for example, has put more than 30,000 recycling containers in grocery stores since 2005. The company recycles 27 million pounds of plastic film and wrap annually, and incorporates anywhere from 10-35 percent recycled content into its bags.

The American Chemistry Council has installed more than 600 recycling bins on beaches and at highway rest stops in California in the last three years.

In addition, the industry has done a stellar job of explaining that plastic bags have a lower overall environment footprint than paper bags, and pointing out that today’s single-use bags use about 50 percent less material than the plastic bags first introduced 35 years ago.

The industry has also repeatedly pointed out how several studies show plastic bags are only about one-half of 1 percent of the litter stream.

While all those initiatives and arguments are good, they are unlikely to stop the number of plastic bag bans in the U.S. — now at 40 — from increasing, because they don’t deal with the problems plastic bags create from a community and environmental standpoint.

Quite simply, plastic bags represent “the collective sins of the age of plastic,” as author Susan Freinkel wrote in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, published early last year.

That is, they are a single-use product made from a non-renewable resource, they are highly visible as litter — because they blow away even when they are recycled and have the potential to harm marine life when they get into waters and oceans.

“The industry can trot out all the information they want about the lower environmental footprint of plastic bags, and how they represent a very small portion of the litter stream, but that doesn’t matter” to the communities and legislators who see plastic bags as a nuisance and a symbol of the improper use of natural resources to make a single-use product, said one legislative official.

Granted, there is some recycling of plastic bags, mostly at supermarkets. But there is no individual or industry take-back effort that could be viewed as a form of extended producer responsibility.

In addition, statistics for plastic bag recycling in the U.S. remain fuzzy, as they are lumped into a single report covering film and plastic bags without an adequate breakout for the number or pounds of plastic bags recycled.

And, without that specified number, environmentalists and legislators remain skeptical about plastic bag recycling rates the industry cites.

The top four plastic bag manufacturers in the U.S. did pledge back in 2009 to incorporate 40 percent recycled content into their bags by 2015. But that timetable is too slow to satisfy communities dealing with plastic bag litter and its associated costs.

“The industry hurts themselves by not ... getting to that level in an expeditious fashion,” said one legislative official. “That’s the only thing that might change the legislators’ minds now and I’m not sure even that will work.”