The California Coastal Commission had big plans for an education campaign aimed at reducing plastic litter, and it started with an effort to get industry, environmental groups and government agencies to work together on common goals.
Now that effort is facing a serious setback, the result of sniping between the commission and one of its industry partners, the American Plastics Council.
Commission staffers accuse APC of ``sabotage'' and ``pettiness'' for swooping in and taking a hostage - an Internet address that CCC wanted, plasticdebris.org.
APC said it took the domain name because the commission's effort had been taking on an anti-plastic bias. APC said in a letter that it would relinquish the Web site if CCC changes its tune and stops making plastic ``the scapegoat and sole cause of California's marine debris problem.''
The first cracks in the once high-minded effort appeared in mid-October, when CCC started circulating some public education materials among an advisory group of industry, government and environmentalists, including representatives of APC. Those materials outlined plans to use the Web site.
On Oct. 14, while the CCC materials were circulating, APC quietly registered the plasticdebris.org domain name and a variation, plasticdebris.com. Arlington, Va.-based APC did not register the sites under its own name, instead registering them with a family member of the group's chief media spokesman, Robert Krebs, and apparently using Krebs' home address.
A few weeks later, when CCC staffers went to register the name formally, they found it had been taken. That left CCC officials steamed.
``It seems that APC is trying to act single-handedly to control the outcome and the messaging in our project,'' said Miriam Gordon, project manager for CCC in San Francisco. ``Having to start over again with the domain name and redrawing the brochures represents a waste of resources and a real setback in our timeline.''
Gordon added that CCC was in the process of responding to concerns APC raised in mid-November.
While the argument at one level is a narrow dispute over a Web site, and the CCC can choose another name, it comes against a backdrop of efforts by industry and government to work together on a problem attracting significant attention in California.
Gordon said the project focuses on plastic because experts have identified plastics as the major component of marine and coastal litter, with 90 percent of the floating debris in the world's oceans being plastic. Southern California cities also face expensive mandates to eliminate all litter in their watersheds, and San Francisco is weighing an expensive tax on plastic bags to reduce litter.
The CCC project, which is being operated in conjunction with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, also is developing an action plan for the state government, including legislative recommendations. Since CCC would like to pursue voluntary solutions first, it formed the advisory panel about a year ago, and the cooperation had been going well, Gordon said.
APC said it remains interested in pursuing voluntary solutions with CCC, but said in a Dec. 1 e-mail to the group that APC has a ``deep concern'' that the project had shifted from cooperation to blaming plastic.
``While our actions related to the domain registration can be viewed as assertive or pre-emptive, our intentions were straightforward and aimed solely at assuring the plastics industry is fairly represented,'' APC wrote.
The commission's draft materials refer almost entirely to plastic and do not talk about other types of trash, said Roger Bernstein, APC's vice president of government affairs.
Bernstein said APC is willing to pay to redesign CCC's materials if they take a ``balanced tone'' that litter is a problem of people's behavior, not any particular material.
``Our industry is too great an industry to be mischaracterized,'' Bernstein said. ``If we want to own a headline that mischaracterizes our industry, that is our right.''
APC said it would prefer a name like marinedebris.org. Some others on the advisory panel, like the environmental group Californians Against Waste, want the group to adopt a more aggressive name, like plasticistrash.org.
One plastics industry representative on CCC's advisory panel was not happy with APC's action on the Web site.
``The way they registered it is open to a lot of questions,'' said Robert Bateman, president of film extruder and converter Roplast Industries Inc. in Oroville, Calif.
``It was bound to give the impression of being deliberately mischievous,'' Bateman said. ``It hasn't done anything for those of us trying to build bridges between the legitimate concerns of industry and the legitimate concerns of others, like CAW and the California Coastal Commission.''