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Plastic bans, EPR laws not going away

By: Mike Verespej

April 3, 2012

ORLANDO, FLA. (April 3, 8:30 p.m. ET) — Bans on plastic bags and take-out polystyrene containers aren’t going to easily go away and are only part of a larger effort to get rid of products seen as litter or marine debris, says Laurie Hansen, executive director of the Western Plastics Association.

And next on the horizon, she says, are extended producer responsibility laws.

“They are all happening because litter is happening and marine debris is happening,” said Hansen during a presentation at the Business of Plastics conference at NPE2012. “Litter and marine debris is the hot button issue on the West Coast. Paper and aluminum sink, but that’s not what’s targeted. It’s what floats and that’s plastic.”

“Environmentalists are running with that to enact bans,” said Hansen, who, along with the WPA, is based in Sacramento, Calif. “And local communities want manufacturers to pay for diversion and recycling. And, if that doesn’t happen, they want to get rid of the product. They are many people who want disposables gone.”

“The bans on plastic bags, polystyrene, BPA, chemicals and other resins are going to continue,” she said. “It’s not going to stop despite industry efforts.

“But as an industry, we need to be working together, pulling together,” said Hansen who has dealt with plastics industry issues in California as a lobbyist for more than 20 years. “We need to talk as an industry about the issues and what’s going on because there is a place for every type of plastic. We have to explain that to people. We all need to be active, not reactive.”

As an example of being pro-active, she pointed out how Dart Container Corp. is doing “a great job” of recycling polystyrene foodservice packaging, particularly in California, and how the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council is paying for equipment to condense polystyrene into bales to make it easier to recycle and transport that material for recycling.

Related to that, Hansen said industry could help its own cause through greater use of recycled content in its products. “The industry could make a lot of friends if they do that.”

And while the people in the industry need to talk to either one, they can’t just talk to their fellow counterparts in industry, she said.

We also need to be talking to our detractors because they are the ones that have the public ear,” said Hansen. “We need to know what they’re doing and they need to know what we’re doing” to develop solutions that work for all parties.

One blossoming item on legislative agendas is extended producer responsibility, where the manufacturer is responsible for the cost of recovering that product at the end of its life.

In most EPR programs, governments set parameters for waste diversion, recycling, or both. Specifics of how to achieve those objectives are determined by the companies that are part of the supply chain for the product, or packaging that needs to be recovered at the end of its life.

Today more than 30 European countries have some type of EPR packaging law, and the concept has been gaining momentum in Canada the past six years.

In the United States, EPR has been mostly focused on electronic goods—25 states now have some type of e-waste take-back program.

“EPR has taken root,” said Hansen. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand as an industry. We have to find a way to work with governments and non-government organizations” to address that issue.

There are other issues, emerging in California and spreading along the West Coast, that the industry needs to keep its attention on. “In the year coming up, we will have issues very important to the plastics industry,” she said.

For example, the city of Los Angeles is considering whether to ban both plastic and paper bags, or to ban plastic bags and place a fee on paper bags.

The California State Water Quality Board is looking at restrictions on trash going into waterways and considering giving cities credits if they ban plastics bags and PS containers. “That is a very serious endeavor right now,” she said.

The California Green Chemistry Initiative is looking at what Hansen called “broad, sweeping regulations” that would require companies to reduce CO2 emissions back to the levels of 1990.

There are also several proposals to ban any packaging that is not recyclable or compostable. “That goes way beyond bags and polystyrene to things like potato chip pouches. This has the potential to go much wider in scope,” said Hansen.

And SB568—to ban all PS packaging statewide—remains on the assembly floor and could be voted on anytime before the California legislative sessions ends in September.

“If we don’t get together and work together, we will have major problems,” she said. “I truly believe our plastic products have helped the world, but there are folks out there that don’t. I want to change their mind.”