The head of the California Integrated Waste Management Board kicked off a conference on the state's plastic packaging law, which businesses hate, with a pointed question. Board Chairman Dan Eaton wanted to know what part of the law environmentalists could support getting rid of, and he wanted to know what the plastics industry thinks works best about the law.
I don't think he got the candor he was looking for.
An American Plastics Council representative said the best part of the law is its recognition of source reduction and compliance options, while a member of Californians Against Waste took the opportunity to plug the group's legislation to toughen the law.
That doesn't really help. There weren't many companies at the event, but the few there had good points. The law has had some serious unintended results, such as:
Companies switching from rigid containers to much less recyclable flexible packaging to avoid complying with the law.
Companies reducing the size of their plastic containers, but having to use more shipping packaging to protect them. Less waste in one area, but more in another.
Companies using recycled content but being forced to make the plastic bottles heavier to protect their product.
On the other hand, the big picture of the law is that it clearly has forced companies to use more recycled content or reduce their packaging waste, and that's a good thing. Several companies at the event said they took those steps because the California government pushed them.
Obviously, you can't ignore the marketplace. Consumers love plastic, and those PET and high density polyethylene bottles have a lot of benefits. And, it's true that sometimes market pressures drive firms to source-reduce to save money, and that also has environmental benefits.
But there's a larger question of what is being done to conserve natural resources, or at least limit the growth of our society's consumption of natural resources, which recycled content does.
The California law tries to address that. The legislation has its flaws. Maybe friendlier approaches could be tried, like tax credits for using recycled content. But industry needs to do more than simply stand in the way of such legislation, which it too often does, and environmentalists need to recognize some of the problems with legislative mandates.
A related thought: A bit of good news for plastics recycling.
The recycling rate for PET containers covered by the California bottle bill jumped from 57 percent to 65 percent in 1999. That happened before the state expanded its bottle bill, and perhaps shows that recycling is catching up to the growth of single-serve bottles.
Couple that with some preliminary numbers showing dramatic increases in PET collected from the state's newly expanded bottle-deposit legislation, and it makes you wonder if recycling in California might be improving.
Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based staff reporter.