Californians fancy themselves trendsetters, and they often are. In business, the sheer size of the state's market means it's hard to ignore what happens there, whether that's recycling policy or automobile emissions standards.
That's why what's happening with film recycling is particularly interesting and bears watching. As a series of stories in our paper this week shows, it's a big issue in California and governments are pressing for action.
This month, the topic drew about 200 people from government, industry, environmental groups and scientific circles to a Los Angeles conference on plastic debris and the oceans.
It was interesting to watch the lengths to which the conference organizers, the California Coastal Commission and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, went to bring everyone into the dialogue.
Industry groups talked about their efforts to develop recycling programs for bags and film, about working with AMRF on pellet-containment programs and about plans to develop an environmental rating system for bag suppliers. Government officials highlighted the problems - a court-mandated price tag of between $2 billion and $8 billion to clean up Los Angeles waterways, for example - but most were quick to say they want to see the plastics industry thrive as well.
One scientist involved in similar conferences in the United Kingdom, Richard Thompson, said the California debate is way ahead of the United Kingdom's in getting the different groups to talk realistically. But big differences remain. The progress thus far has been confined largely to plastic bags and film, but it's not clear if it can be duplicated in other areas, like polystyrene food packaging.
The city of Los Angeles recently put together a task force of industry representatives and others to look at bags, and made some recommendations, like having industry help fund a citywide public education campaign. Los Angeles also has started collecting plastic bags in its curbside recycling program.
Next up, the city wants a similar task force on polystyrene. One lobbyist for a PS packaging company, echoing some other industry officials, told me he sees the solution as enforcement: Just enforce existing litter laws.
But judging by how the bag program went, I don't think local officials will be happy with just that. They'll want to see some commitments from industry.
Of course, PS food containers have some unique challenges, namely contamination from all that uneaten food. But saying that it's strictly an enforcement problem passes the buck back to government, and away from companies.
Personally, I don't think that answer's going to fly in California right now, in Los Angeles or other cities. Which is what makes the bag industry developments so interesting. Everyone is looking to see if it will be a model for other parts of the plastic industry. If not, government officials seem ready to step in with something that might be less friendly.
Steve Toloken is a Washington-based staff reporter for PN.