California regulators are stepping up their focus on the trash bag industry to try to get manufacturers to use more recycled plastic. For the first time, regulators are denying some companies access to state contracts if they don't comply with a state law requiring recycled content in bags.
The California Integrated Waste Management Board, in Sacramento, is concerned because bag makers have cut back dramatically on the amount of post-consumer plastic they use. While industry officials say that's true, they say supplies of recycled polyethylene have been limited because plastic lumber makers have been buying up the PE.
It's not a new debate, but the waste board has put renewed focus on it in recent months.
In September, the agency for the first time told two of the four largest trash bag makers - Clorox Co. and Trans Western Polymers - that they were not working hard enough to use recycled material and invoked a clause in the state law banning them from getting state contracts.
California law requires 10 percent recycled content in trash bags that have a thickness of 0.7 mil or greater.
Both Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox, which had no recycled content in 2002, and Livermore, Calif.-based Trans Western, which had 1 percent recycled content, declined to comment.
The other two large bag makers, PolyAmerica Inc. and Pactiv Inc., used 4.1 and 7.5 percent recycled content, respectively. While they fell short of the law, the board said it exempted them because they took proactive steps.
Some in the industry question how much sense the law makes, since the plastic is still being recycled. They argue that lumber may be a better use since it's a longer-term product. And industry officials say the law sometimes creates a perverse incentive, encouraging thicker bags just so they have recycled content.
Steve Jones, the waste board member who called for the review, said he recognizes that the growth of the plastic lumber industry has made it much tougher for plastic bag makers.
But he also said that the plastics industry needs to do more to boost recycling, and he said the board has to enforce the law.
``It's not fair to citizens who have made a commitment to recycle their materials,'' Jones said. ``If there aren't markets, all that stuff ends up going in landfills.''
The board said only about 5 percent of plastic is recycled, compared with 20 percent for other materials, such as glass and paper. And since 40 percent of the plastic thrown out in the state is film and bags, the category warrants special attention, the board said.
The amount of recycled plastic used by the four largest bag manufacturers has dropped dramatically, from about 8.4 million pounds in 1998 to 2.6 million pounds last year, according to waste board figures.
Jones said the board wants to emphasize the importance of the issue. The agency, for example, held a technical forum with the industry in late October to work through issues and see if changes are warranted in the specifications set by the state.
In 2002, the board staff had recommended doing away with the 10 percent recycled-content requirement, except on bags purchased by the state government.
``I think the trash bag manufacturers are doing a good job by and large, and I think a lot of the material they used to have readily available is going off to plastic lumber,'' Jones said.
One bag maker who attended the discussion said it was helpful, but he said in a telephone interview afterward that the board should look for other durable-good applications for the recycled PE.
``There are better applications for that material, like plastic lumber,'' said Frank Ruiz, technical director for Heritage Bag Co. in Carrollton, Texas. ``When you're making a trash bag, you're making something that's guaranteed to go back into the landfill.''
He said Heritage makes some bags thicker just so they can have recycled content, and he said the recycled-content bags cost more and are trickier to manufacture.
Consumer trends also pose challenges. Bag makers said at the hearing that the popular draw-string bags are very hard to make with recycled content because they have more seals than traditional bags, and that can make them more likely to tear if recycled material is used.