(Nov. 14, 2005) — A group of major plastic bag makers did an interesting, and to some a counterintuitive, thing earlier this month: They agreed to cut their sales in one market — grocery stores in San Francisco — by 20 percent.
The Progressive Bag Alliance, along with grocery stores and the city government, reached an agreement that will mean 10 million fewer plastic bags given to city residents next year. PBA, which includes several of the largest bag makers, and its partners also will take action to boost recycling.
Of course, no one agrees to participate in a deal to cut their own sales without a pretty good reason. In this case, that reason is the city's threat of a 17 cent tax on each bag. City officials are concerned about litter on streets and beaches and said that plastic bags create problems for their recycling equipment.
For its part, the city acknowledged it has to do more. It said it will try to add plastic bags to its curbside recycling program, joining other California cities that have managed to do that already.
We think the plan shows real promise. It's not clear yet if the arrangement will work as intended — we'll have to wait and see. But our initial impressions are good. The city will assess the situation at the end of 2006, and some city officials are openly skeptical.
Still, it's worth giving kudos to all the parties. Everyone deserves credit for stepping to the table and agreeing to take some meaningful action. It could have gone the other way, into a nasty political fight that would not have accomplished much.
But the issue is about more than bags and is much broader than San Francisco. The bag industry and the city of Los Angeles are negotiating a similar deal. Other parts of the country also have taken a strong interest in bag recycling, and countries around the world have imposed, or are imposing, taxes and bans on plastic bags.
If this more-cooperative model works, it will put pressure on other parts of the U.S. packaging chain to try similar arrangements domestically. The sky-high price of resin right now makes such approaches more likely to succeed.
The other interesting element here is an underlying philosophy that seems to accept concepts — like zero waste — that a decade ago were limited, in the United States at least, to think tanks and academics.
San Francisco officials said the agreement is part of their plan to be a zero waste city by 2020, and if you listen to the bag industry talk about the deal, you hear shades of that same philosophy.
Here's Larry Johnson, chairman of the PBA, suggesting why bag makers support the San Francisco plan: “To build a business on a long-term basis on the improper use of your product and creating false demand is not a good situation for the industry.”
False demand? Cut your own sales? Almost sounds like Johnson's been converted. Give the man a tree to hug.
Of course, altruism gets you just so far. For now, rising oil and natural gas prices make plastics recycling look better, and industry and governments should exploit that to build common ground.
The most interesting element of the bag debate in California is that, rather than fighting, the plastic bag industry and government have sought a cooperative approach. If it works, you can expect much more of the same, and responsible companies making other kinds of packaging should be open to it.