It's no secret that plastic bags are in the cross hairs of governments around the world, who see them as litter, water pollution and examples of excess packaging. The Australian government, for one, urged people in August to boycott plastic supermarket checkout bags for a weekend, and the country's science minister said the bags are ``like nuclear waste'' because of how long they remain in the environment.
Now, governments in the United States are raising similar concerns, although the issues are more in their infancy and perhaps are described with less-dramatic metaphors.
Most of the concern is in California, although other states are watching. A California agency last month proposed a tax on plastic film to fund recycling programs, and San Francisco is considering a 25 cent tax on plastic and paper bags.
One driver of the government interest is relatively narrow - a California state law requiring recycled content in plastic trash bags. Another is more far-reaching - paying the $2 billion it will cost Southern California cities to comply with a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit requiring them to eliminate trash flowing into rivers and the Pacific Ocean.
``I see this emerging as the next big plastic issue, particularly in California,'' said Mark Murray, executive director of the environmental group Californians Against Waste, in Sacramento. ``Local governments face zero tolerance to eliminate the marine debris. The primary culprit is plastic film.''
Industry officials say they recognize the problems and have moved to address them in California with a Web site to promote bag recycling and with reinvigorated efforts to keep plastic pellets from getting into storm-water systems and local waterways, where they harm wildlife.
``We want to increase recycling. We want to remove pellets from the waste stream,'' said Donna Dempsey, executive director of the Film and Bag Federation in Washington. ``We realize plastic bags are very visible.''
While precise figures are not available, the ``best case'' is that 10 percent of plastic film is recycled, said Mike Vatuna, chairman of the FBF and director of bulk materials for plastic lumber maker Trex Co. in Winchester, Va. ``The recycling rate is very low on film,'' he said.
But what to do and who will foot the bill are subjects of debate.
Industry officials say they don't like the idea of a tax on makers of plastic trash bags to pay for recycling and to build a collection infrastructure, as the California Integrated Waste Management Board proposed in a draft report last month. Details of that tax have not been worked out.
Board officials also proposed making the state's plastic trash bag law more flexible.
Environmental groups like CAW say industry needs to take more responsibility for funding programs to boost recycling and collection. Murray said there's little public education, and grocery stores and retailers seem to have cut back on bag collection, a point that some in the plastics industry, like Vatuna, agree with.
City officials in San Francisco think their proposal for a 25 cent tax on both plastic and paper bags would cut down on bag use, because consumers would stop to think if they had to pay.
``A lot of bags are being generated unnecessarily,'' said Robert Haley, recycling program coordinator for the city government.
Local governments get stuck with the cost of litter and waste disposal, and the plastic in particular winds up in the ocean, where marine life mistakes it for food, he said. A 1999 state government study said plastic film was among the 10 most prevalent materials in the California waste stream.
The city proposal would let retailers keep the money they collect, as long as it goes to support recycling.
``We need to internalize the cost in the products,'' Haley said.
Frank Ruiz, head of the California Film and Bag Alliance and technical director for Heritage Bag Co. in Carrollton, Texas, said the industry wants a partnership with government that it believes can be both pro-environment and pro-industry and that can help the industry compete globally.
For example, the industry supported legislation this year in California that banned the use of heavy-metal pigments and inks by 2006. While the legislation is, on its face, pro-environment, Ruiz said that also works to the domestic industry's economic benefit because it could restrict cheap imports that currently use those heavy-metal additives.
He said the industry was disappointed the state government seemed to be brushing aside industry commitments when officials came out with their proposal for a tax on plastic film.
But waste board officials noted that they gave exemptions in June to several large bag makers that could not comply with the trash bag law and have said in the past they are open to scrapping it in favor of more comprehensive solutions.
``Plastics are being recycled at such a low rate,'' said Michael Leaon, supervisor of the plastics recycling technologies section at the board.
Ruiz, however, said the industry worries about unintended consequences of state laws that don't fully consider the realities of the marketplace, which is how industry sees the trash bag law.
Heritage winds up making its trash bags for the California market 25 percent thicker, because using recycled plastic as the state requires makes the bags weaker.
The thicker bags mean Heritage alone adds about 200 tons more materials to California landfills each year, he said. Industry officials say it would make more sense to steer recycled film into longer-lasting applications, and not trash bags, which head right to the landfill.
One thing that could work in favor of additional recycling is that demand for recycled plastic film remains white hot, both for export and by U.S. companies that use it as a raw material to make plastic lumber, flower pots and other durable goods.
``Right now the demand for materials is tremendously strong,'' said Vatuna of Trex, one of the country's larger makers of plastic lumber.
Export demand has heated up in the past few months as crude oil prices have risen, but the collection system needs to be beefed up before there can be a lot more recycling, he said.
``The key word is infrastructure,'' Vatuna said. ``You can't just flick a switch and more bags show up.''
While bag makers are reluctant to set firm recycling goals, Ruiz said 25 percent might be a good target.
The issue of litter, marine pollution and plastic bag waste has gotten high-profile attention from national governments around the world. Ireland, Taiwan, Bangladesh and other countries have put bans or taxes in place, and Australia wants supermarkets to cut the number of plastic bags used in half by next year.
The government in Australia, for example, urged consumers to take part in a ``48-hour Plastic Bag Famine'' and not use them during the weekend of Aug. 21-22. At a national kickoff rally outside Parliament House in Canberra, Science Minister Peter McGauran told a group of school kids that the bags damage the environment, according to a report on the Web site of Australian Broadcasting Corp.
``You have got to hate plastic bags, boys and girls - I hate them,'' McGauran told the rally.
In the United States, the issue is more likely to be debated at the state and local level. CAW's Murray said local governments are more resistant to industry pressure than state legislatures. Heritage Bag's Ruiz said he expects that the issue will remain alive in California, even under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ran as a business-friendly candidate.
Schwarzenegger's director of the state Environmental Protecion Agency, Terry Tamminen, led lawsuits to clean up pollution in the state's waterways in his previous job as head of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Environment Now.
``I think it's fair to say that California, even under Gov. Schwarzenegger, will have continued emphasis on the environment,'' Ruiz said.