A California state agency wants to work with the plastics industry on a plan to boost the recycling rate for plastic films. But if the agency does not see enough progress, it is threatening to impose taxes.
Plastics trade group leaders consider it good news that the industry would have input in the plan, and that, as part of the deal, the state may dump an unpopular law that requires recycled content in trash bags.
But they do not like the threat of taxes and question how the California Integrated Waste Management Board's plan would be implemented. The board said significant steps are needed to boost the poor recycling rate for products from retail bags to films used in farms and businesses.
The board called Feb. 15 for the industry to adopt formal commitments to increase film recovery, since it estimates that only about 5 percent of plastic bags and film are recycled.
While all sides agree that this is a significant change in policy for the board, it is not clear what would be required of the industry. The waste management board has not spelled out many details of its new direction, and for now the board is only proposing that state law be changed to give it this authority.
Still, in anticipation of the law passing, agency officials said they want to start talking with industry and environmental groups about what kind of recycling and waste diversion goals should be in the agreements, known as memorandums of understanding.
``It's difficult to set a specific target at this point,'' said Rosalie Mule, one of six members of the agency's board. ``The nature of plastics is so complex ... We want to be sure that we all do our research and develop goals that are realistic and achievable.''
Plastic bags and film are the sixth-largest part of the state's waste stream, and grew from 3.9 percent of garbage in 1999 to 4.3 percent last year, the board said.
Bags also are attracting attention from local governments in the state: San Francisco is considering a well-publicized tax on plastic bags, and the Los Angeles city government has organized an industry task force to look at reducing plastic litter, including bags, in its waterways.
Plastic industry officials said they like the concept, but have big questions about implementation. For example, they ask how the state would get all the interested parties, such as retailers or farmers using agricultural films, to voluntarily participate in planning and supporting new recycling programs, when current law does not require much from them.
``We wonder how the board will go about getting all the parties to agree on diversion rates and get all the parties to the table,'' said Donna Dempsey, executive director of the Film and Bag Federation, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington. ``This almost raised more questions than it answered.''
Board officials said they would be happy if a ``critical mass'' of companies in each industry sector participates, and said it is essential that the key players in each sector participate.
Bill Orr, manager of the board's recycling technology section, said the board would probably write separate memorandums of understanding with different segments of the film industry, and pick a few to start with. Grocery bags would probably be among the first, along with agricultural and commercial films and other types of retail bags, he said.
``A lot of details will need to be worked out during the legislative process,'' Orr said.
Some observers said there could be opposition as the law moves through the Legislature. Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste in Sacramento, said the bill will probably pass, but suggested that if targeting all plastic film proves too controversial, the legislation might focus on low-hanging fruit like retail bags.
Orr said the board envisions any potential taxes would be assessed on specific industry segments, not broadly across all films and is looking at taxes of between 0.4 cent and 1 cent per pound. However, such taxes probably would not be imposed until 2009, after the board can assess the memorandum.
If the law passes this year, the agency expects to begin negotiating the agreements in 2006, implementing them in 2007, and assessing their impact in 2008 with a study of the state's garbage stream.
The board first proposed a broad tax on the film industry last fall, but changed that to its current proposal after hearing complaints from industry.
The focus on film grew out of a realization that the state's plastic trash bag law, which requires recycled content, was not effective and the state should focus more broadly on boosting film recovery, since markets that use recycled material like plastic lumber were hungry for supply, Mule said.