With plastic film both a litter and waste issue and the zero-waste movement gaining momentum in California, a number of initiatives have emerged with the potential to foster and increase plastic bag recycling.
``The zero-waste goals are driving a lot of activity,'' said Tim Shestek, chief lobbyist in California for the American Plastics Council. ``The litter issue is also driving a lot of activity.''
That activity includes:
* San Francisco, working with eight supermarket chains, has adopted a target of reducing the number of plastic bags handed out by 10 million, or 20 percent, by year-end. That potentially would keep 95 tons of plastic out of the city's waste stream. The initiative came after a proposed 17 cent-per-bag tax fell by the wayside last year.
* In San Juan Capistrano, Calif., more than 1 million grocery bags were collected in the first nine months of a curbside recycling program developed in conjunction with Hilex Poly Co. LLC, a Hartsville, S.C., bag manufacturer and bag recycler.
* Supermarket chain Albertson's Inc. of Boise, Idaho, and retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville, Ark., have developed initiatives to recycle bags.
* But, potentially, the most wide-reaching plan is California AB 2449, which would require grocers to create in-store programs for collecting and recycling plastic bags; to use bags printed with a message about recycling; and to sell reusable bags if they sell disposal ones. The bill also would require plastic bag makers to work with the stores on collection, transportation and recycling of the bags.
The California assembly was expected to vote on the measure last week, with a strong likelihood of passage.
``We support the initiatives in California,'' said Daniel Schrager, president and chief executive officer of Sun Valley Worldwide Inc. in Delray Beach, Fla., which recycles 1 million pounds of film annually. But the firm can't get all the recycled bags it would like.
``We support new initiatives and new technologies to recycle more bags, and support the notion that there should be a reduction in the number of plastic bags,'' Schrager said.
Sun Valley is working to develop programs with municipalities, distributors and grocers to take their recycled materials and turn them into resin, which Sun can use to make products like plastic pallets, shopping carts and baskets and recycling bins that it sells back at a discounted rate.
Schrager said his firm plans to open plants in 2007 in Ontario, Canada, and on the West Coast that would double its capacity.
According to California Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, Californians throw away 19 billion plastic grocery bags per year, creating nearly 150,000 tons of waste annually.
Only 2-4 percent of plastic film is recycled annually in California, with only 10 percent of that from bags, according to Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento, Calif., nonprofit organization out to advance resource recovery, prevent pollution and increase recycling.
AB 2449, sponsored by Levine, ``is fairly modest and would put into place what many grocery stores are already doing,'' said Mark Murray, CAW executive director.
He said the largest question is whether the bill will be approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
``Fortunately, we are in an election year,'' Murray said. ``It is pretty much a mom-and-apple-pie issue. It provides a basic-level collection infrastructure for plastic bag collection'' in an environment where municipalities and government entities are trying to reduce landfill waste and empty rivers of litter.
CAW estimates, for example, that plastic bags and film account for 45 percent of the litter in the Los Angeles River.
Much of the opposition has been from Safeway Stores, based in Pleasanton, Calif., because of the way the bill singles out supermarket chains. Numbers from the state and from CAW indicate that grocery stores and retailers distribute 32 million plastic bags daily, which is more than 60 percent of the total. Takeout-food establishments, dry cleaners and newspapers make up 40 percent.
Manufacturers, grocery stores, recyclers and users of recycled bags are working to develop solutions, Murray said.
``Bag manufacturers are committed to coming up with a real solution, as they feel the survival of plastic bags is at stake,'' Murray said.
For example, the Bag 2 Bag program in San Juan Capistrano, now in its 15th month - got a boost from Hilex, which is looking to supply its recycling facilities in Mount Vernon, Ind. The program has consumers put all their plastic bags into a single bag to help simplify curbside recycling, which had been limited because it has caused problems for municipalities in two ways: bags getting stuck in recycling equipment or contaminating other recycled goods. The program has spread to the nearby communities of San Clemente and Dana Point.
``Both the Progressive Bag Alliance and Hilex Poly are putting considerable resources into making plastic bags easier to recycle,'' said Leon Farahnik, president of Hilex and chairman of PBA, an industry group that includes the largest U.S. plastic bag manufacturers.
In addition, recyclers are finding use for bags in plastic lumber and in new plastic bags.
``The markets are there,'' said Judith T. Dunbar, director of environmental and technical issues for the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va. ``They are good and they are growing.''
One of the challenges is developing a solution that does not adversely affect domestic manufacturers, because foreign bag manufacturers, for the most part, have not participated in recycling programs.
``We don't want to put the domestic producers at a disadvantage because they are doing the right thing and it adds a fraction of a cent to their costs,'' Murray said.