The plastics industry is looking at spending $700,000 this year to campaign against taxes and restrictions on plastic bags and to boost recycling in California. The effort is a sign that the industry considers that issue to be one of the most significant political challenges it faces.
A group of companies and trade associations have hired consultants to run what they call a ``crisis management campaign'' to talk about the benefits of plastic bags, conduct polls and build grass-roots support for alternatives to bans and taxes.
Bags and film are attracting so much attention because California officials say they are one of the fastest-growing parts of the waste stream, and cities like Los Angeles are under orders from the Environmental Protection Agency to sharply reduce litter and pollution in waterways and the ocean.
San Francisco is considering a 17 cent tax on plastic and paper bags, several Los Angeles city council members are negotiating with industry and environmentalists to develop a plan, and a California state agency wants to negotiate with the film industry to cut waste.
Industry officials say they do not want taxes, and are willing to take other steps to boost recycling, like working with grocery stores to make it easier to recycle bags.
``We're starting out with a public relations campaign in California, but it's not limited to that by any stretch,'' said Rex Varn, president of bag maker Hilex Poly Co. LLC in Hartsville, S.C. ``We're going to work until we have a program in place that is sustainable for the long-term.''
Hilex is part of a new industry group, the Progressive Bag Alliance, which consists of the five largest U.S. plastic bag makers - Hilex, Vanguard Plastics Inc., Advance Polybag Inc., Superbag Corp. and Inteplast Group Ltd.
PBA has agreed to kick in $500,000, with the American Plastics Council agreeing to contribute $125,000, according to a report posted on the Web site of the Film and Bag Federation, a Washington-based industry trade group that is part of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Total costs for 2005 could exceed $700,000, the report said.
The plastics industry also is doing other fund raising: A memo distributed at an SPI meeting in early May asked for sponsorship contributions from between $2,500 and $25,000.
According to that memo, the PBA has hired an issues management firm, Manning, Selvage & Lee, and plans grass-roots efforts like direct mail and Web sites. One Web site is aimed at the San Francisco debate, www.sfbagrecycling.com.
The memo said PBA also will identify what it calls ``credible third-party spokespersons,'' and said the campaign would ``raise questions about these unreasonable anti-bag initiatives through responsible alternative approaches supported by the public.''
Varn said those efforts could include things like a new curbside recycling program for plastic bags started in February by the city of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Hilex helped to start that effort, and ships bags collected there to its new recycling plant in Indiana, he said.
An image and lobbying campaign like this is not unusual, of course, but the scope and quick ramp-up suggest that industry officials consider it a serious problem.
A report presented by industry lobbyist Laurie Hansen at a Film and Bag Federation meeting in April said the plastic industry had not accomplished enough by January, when the issue was heating up in San Francisco, because it had not crafted a public relations plan nor raised enough money.
Environmental groups pushing for tougher government action have their own efforts, as well. The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Earth Resource Foundation has a ``Campaign Against the Plastic Plague,'' for example, which aims to reduce bag waste.
Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste in Sacramento, said that ``there's a level of seriousness on both sides we haven't seen in a while.''
Murray has been participating, along with the bag industry, in dialogues with the city of Los Angeles. He said industry groups are looking at reducing bag waste by 50 percent.
Based on discussions he's had with some companies, Murray said: ``I think the bag manufacturers are sincere in their efforts to deal with this problem. ... They could be playing me, but I feel like we're engaged in this collaborative process in Los Angeles.''
Murray said the tough-minded approach in San Francisco is valuable because it forces stores to the table.
``The problem is that the environmentalists and the bag manufacturers still don't seem to be very successful in getting the attention of the retailers,'' he said.