Bag maker taking on bans

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WASHINGTON (May 31, 4:10 p.m. ET) — In the first five months of the year, the number of plastic bag bans in the U.S. has doubled, from 37 to 75, after almost doubling, from 19 to 37, in 2011. The industry has been unable to stop major U.S. cities such as Seattle, Austin and now, most likely, Los Angeles, from banning its products.

Two-thirds of the bans are in California, and plastic bag bans are now in place in three of the 14 largest and five of the 29 largest cities in the U.S., with Los Angeles — the nation’s second-largest city, with a population of 4 million — set to join that group.

But the largest plastic bag manufacturer in the U.S. is still convinced that the facts are on its side and intends to continue to try to educate legislators and the public about the environmental facts surrounding plastic bags and the effect of bans on jobs, the environment and the economy.

“What do all three of those [large] cities have in common?” asked Mark Daniels, vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly Co. LLC, during a May 31 phone interview. “They are all extremely liberal, the city councils are all Democratic, all consider themselves conscientious and all are influenced by the loudest constituent — the environment activist community.”

“This issue is California-centric and environmentalists have made plastic bags a symbol” of waste, litter and environmental problems, said Daniels, who is also chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

“Even though plastic bag litter is a fraction of 1 percent, it is visible litter and lighter than water, so it floats on the surface,” making it an easy target for environmentalists, he said. “Plastic bag ordinances are a perfect example of what happens when city council members base decisions on junk science and ignore the facts.”

The plastic bag battle in Los Angeles isn’t over yet. But with a 13-1 vote to endorse a policy to ban plastic bags, it is not likely the city will reverse its stance after the ordinance is drafted and comes to council for a vote later this year.

“I am not sure what the industry can do at this point to make its voice heard,” Kevin Kelly, CEO of flexible film packaging manufacturer Emerald Packaging Inc. in Union City, Cal., said in an email.

“Clearly plastic is a better choice than paper, and it is not film that is floating in the Pacific, despite the arguments made by the other side,” said Kelly whose company makes a variety of packages such as wicketed polyethylene bags, laminated stand-up pouches, and zippered and hermetic-seal bags.

Kelly said he thinks the Illinois recycling bill — which is close to becoming law — “has many good points, as does the growing recognition that carry-out bags need to use post-consumer resin as a way to jump start recycling.” The recycling bill has passed both chambers of the legislature and is now awaiting action by a conference committee to resolve slight differences in the two versions of the bill.

“I think the industry has done a good job defending itself in Los Angeles,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately the environmentalists have pulled the heart strings of council members with emotional arguments.”

“We do have one hope left in Los Angeles,” said Kelly. “We need to be lobbying to make sure the [environmental impact report] is fair, talking to the public, and raising the banner for bags. But clearly another path has to be followed.”

“We need as an industry to bring these initiatives together and operate at statehouse levels. Fighting city by city just isn’t a good strategy going forward,” he said. “But Los Angeles is important enough we need to keep going” there.

The bans in California alone affect a market with nearly 37.7 million people, or 12 percent of the U.S. population. And Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, predicts single-use plastic shopping bags will be gone from California within five years.

“I’ve got to believe that the executives at Hilex and SPI are kicking themselves for not embracing the bag tax in California and Seattle when they had the chance,” Murray said.

“Eliminating the pollution and costs of plastic bags at the local level has proven to be a surprisingly easy sell,” he said. “We’re on track to have bag bans in half the states before the end of the year.”

Not only do bans take away large potential end markets, they also threaten to damage the recycling infrastructure in the U.S., opponents say.

“It is destroying the plastic bag and film recycling infrastructure,” particularly in California, said Daniels, whose firm will recycle 50 million pounds of film and bags in 2012 — half of that at the company’s 75-employee plant in North Vernon, Ind., and the rest with three joint venture partners.

“Plastic bag and film recycling has gone up in the last 10 years,” said Daniels. “That is the most common-sense solution to the problem, not banning bags. We think we’re on the right path.”

But some legislators and environmentalists see the issue differently — regardless of how many statistics the industry trots out to defend the environmental record of plastic bags, their small percentage of the litter pile or how the number of plastic bags being recycled is increasing.

To them, industry recycling initiatives haven’t solved the problem — not even in California, where there is mandated in-store plastic bag recycling at grocery stores and close to 600 recycling bins on beaches thanks to industry funding.

“Los Angeles has taken a magnificent step forward with the vote of the City Council today,” said council member Paul Koretz after the city voted May 23 to instruct the city attorney to draft an ordinance to ban plastic bags and conduct a state-required environmental impact report.

“There are huge environmental benefits when we say no to single-use bags,” said Koretz. “This action will also help us cut sanitation clean-up costs and get blight out of our neighborhoods, which is great news at a time when cities and the state are struggling to provide services due to severe budgetary challenges.”

The city of Los Angeles has estimated that more 2.7 billion single-use bags are used annually in the city, and that their use costs Los Angeles consumers and taxpayers more than $75 million annually in higher grocery costs and pollution clean-up costs. It is also estimated that the city spends $3 million annually to clean up and keep plastic bags out of impaired water bodies.

“Plastic bags are an environmental and economic threat,” said Sarah Sikich, director of coastal resources for Heal the Bay. “Heal the Bay applauds Los Angeles for becoming the largest city in the nation to take a stand against plastic pollution. We hope this decision catalyzes the state of California and the rest of the nation to take action.”

The last assessment by CalRecycle estimated that 14 billion plastic bags are used annually in the state and placed the statewide recycling rate for plastic bags at 3 percent, or just about 1,500 tons of plastic bags diverted from landfills through recycling.

However, an estimate by Hilex Poly that 1,000 plastic bags weigh 13 pounds suggests that 230.7 million bags were recycled for a recycling rate of just under 1.65 percent.

Daniels argued that plastic bags are an extremely small portion of litter and that the re-use by consumers of plastic bags contributes to their low recycling rate.

“They are three-tenths of 1 percent of all the litter in California,” said Daniels, adding that surveys done in other states, including Texas and Florida, indicate that plastic bags are at the most six-tenths of 1 percent of all litter.

“The environmental community never talks about the 90 percent reuse of our bags by consumers,” said Daniels. “They always just say that there is a low recycling rate. That is one issue we have to develop ... to explain how the re-use of plastic bags makes their recycling rate lower.”

“Quite honestly, we are going to continue to try to educate city council members about some facts they are obviously ignoring,” said Daniels, referring specifically to the pending bag-ban initiative in Los Angeles. “We are going to try to continue to educate them on the facts — not the ideology.”

“Once again, this is what is happening when you see many actors walk the halls” as they did in support of the Los Angeles plastic bag ban, said Daniels. “I don’t know if they are star-struck or what.”

“And why,” asked Daniels, “did the city Bureau of Sanitation develop a propaganda campaign with false information?” For example, he said, BOS said plastic bags are made from oil, when they are made from natural gas.

In addition, “Why did they overstate usage by over 100 percent and understate recycling by 500 percent?” asked Daniels.

“It’s the ideology-vs.-fact notion,” charged Daniels. “They had a pre-conceived notion that they were going to ban plastic bags and then falsified the facts to justify their actions.”

Attempts to reach city officials regarding those charges were unsuccessful.

The realities, said Daniels, are that a plastic bag ban in Los Angeles “would increase greenhouse gas emissions and export jobs to China where reusable bags are made.”

The American Progressive Bag Alliance estimates that the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector in the U.S. employs 30,800 workers in 349 communities across the nation — 1,900 of whom are in California.

“The city of Los Angeles [has] put in motion a misguided and onerous policy that threatens the jobs of hundreds of Angelenos employed by the industry, and nearly 2,000 statewide, while pushing residents to less environmentally friendly reusable bags which are produced overseas and cannot be recycled,” Daniels said.

“This will lead to the importation [from China] of 500 million reusable bags” for which, he said, “there is no recycling structure.”

He also said that the city of Los Angeles “will lose tax revenues,” as shoppers cross borders into nearby cities without plastic bag bans, and that consumers will have their shopping costs increase.

“Los Angeles residents should be further concerned as this ordinance also calls for a regressive, hidden tax to be imposed without voter approval,” said Daniels.

“This kind of ordinance is going to increase the cost of grocery shopping by millions of dollars,” he argued, as consumers will have to pay for paper bags or buy reusable bags if they forget to bring them from home. “It will also put consumers in harm’s way of food-borne illnesses” because of the bacteria that can grow in the reusable bags “if they aren’t washed out.”

Besides, said Daniels, bans on plastic bags won’t solve city litter problems.

“Singling out and banning one product does not reduce litter,” Daniels said. “With this bag ban, the city chose to take a simplistic approach that takes away consumer choice instead of pursuing meaningful programs that encourage greater recycling of plastic bags and wraps, while preserving jobs,” said Daniels.

To encourage recycling and create a take-back program, Hilex, for example, has placed 30,000 recycling bins for film and plastic bags across the U.S.

 “We have a voluntary extended producer responsibility program [for plastic bags], have taken half of the plastics out of them since the mid-1980s, and have been increasing the recycled content in plastic bags,” said Daniels.

On average, Hilex’s bags contain about 30-32 percent recycled content — with some of them having as much as 40 percent recycled content.

“We would like to work with environmentalists because we believe we have a good sustainability solution,” said Daniels. “We are certainly always interested in legislation that advances recycling and recycled content in bags and that can reduce litter from bags.”

“We understand that people are looking for alternatives to reduce plastics in the waste stream,” Phil Rozenski, Hilex’s director of marketing and sustainability, said during a recent visit to the company’s recycling plant in North Vernon. “This is a great story of an industry that’s taken responsibility and gone into closed-loop recycling.”