Mark Murray, longtime head of the advocacy group Californians Against Waste, counts among his successes substantial environmental laws in his state pushing recycled content in newsprint and glass bottles, and recycling of discarded electronics.
So far, though, he said similar success has eluded his group with plastics.
Murray traveled to Washington Sept. 14 to try to change that, invited to a meeting of plastics industry lobbyists and government affairs types where he was politely, and half-jokingly, introduced by an industry official as the ``devil incarnate.''
It was an unusual sight: one of the leading recycling advocates in perhaps the industry's most politically challenging state sitting down with those he has historically butted heads with, the lobbyists and public policy gurus of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
What brought the sides together was a combination of changing political winds in Sacramento and changing economics pushing recycling.
Murray and industry lobbyists this year found themselves working together on new initiatives to recycle plastic bags and bottles. Seeing if they could build on that, or at least keep communication open, industry officials decided to invite Murray to their meeting, said Mike Lynch, vice president of government affairs at Illinois Tool Works Inc. in Glenview, Ill.
Lynch, who heads a new SPI committee focused on California political issues, sees the political debate in California maturing, as companies and environmentalists begin to find common ground on solid waste issues. He said he wanted SPI companies that aren't steeped in California issues to have an appreciation for how the debate is changing. (ITW recently helped sponsor CAW's 20th anniversary celebration.)
ITW and CAW, for example, jointly supported legislation to give more flexibility to California's rigid plastic packaging container law, which requires some plastic containers to have recycled content. The update allows a company that is mandated, but not able, to use recycled plastic to pay another company for using the same amount of waste plastic from the state. In effect the rule sets up a plastics recycling version of an emissions trading system.
Murray said the law is an improvement because companies can spend time taking actions that lead to more recycling, rather than writing complicated reports to state agencies explaining why they cannot comply.
Murray also was involved with some plastic grocery and retail bag makers to work on ways to boost recycling, including developing a plan with the city of Los Angeles. Plans for taxes on bags, including in San Francisco, really pushed some bag makers to the table, he said.
Of course, differences still remain, and both industry and Murray were careful not to overstate the potential for common ground.
Murray said agreement so far is limited to a few companies in some narrow areas, like plastic grocery sack makers and companies like ITW.
He said two bag makers - Hilex Poly Co. LLC and Vanguard Plastics Inc. - sought him out separately with concrete recycling ideas when bag taxes started surfacing, asking for his help in boosting collection. But he questions how widespread that sentiment is.
``I'm not sure that anyone else is coming to the table with that same kind of philosophy in the plastics industry,'' Murray said.
The plastics industry needs to embrace taking more responsibility for the packaging and waste it produces, he said in an interview after a private meeting with SPI officials.
Both sides are driven by practicalities. Murray admits that the more-extensive proposals he and friendly legislators have pushed for packaging taxes and fees have not had political traction.
The industry - particularly bag makers - is under pressure in California to recycle more. The economics are also favorable. High virgin resin prices make recycled material a money saver and bag makers see a better environmental image as something they can use to make their products stand out from cheaper imports, Murray said, .
Lynch sees the discussions going on between the bag industry, government and groups like CAW as a model.
``If indeed that can move forward, I believe that can become a template for the other subsets of the plastics industry,'' Lynch said.
Murray, who has headed CAW since 1994, said he is open to new approaches in plastics. He hopes to duplicate the bigger successes he has had in pushing producer responsibility legislation in industries like electronics or glass, where environmental groups and some companies have been able to agree on approaches.
``I think my purpose in coming [to the SPI meeting] was that I'm getting old and I want to get some things done,'' he said.
But based on some of the questions he received from SPI participants, like those suggesting plastic litter is an issue of personal responsibility not corporate action, the jury's still out, he said.
``I would say that half the room continues to believe that I and CAW are the devil,'' he said.