Three months later than originally anticipated, the California Legislature has passed a plastic bag recycling bill mandating that retailers with more than 10,000 square feet of space take back plastic bags and set up at-store collection centers in visible and accessible locations.
The measure, passed Aug. 30, is aimed at getting grocers, big-box retailers, department stores and drug stores to take a more active role in recycling bags and reducing the use of plastic bags. Sources said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the bill by Sept.15. If signed, it will go into effect July 1, making California the second state with a mandated plastic bag recycling program. Rhode Island is the other.
In conjunction with the bill's passage, a spokesman for Hilex Poly Co. LLC said the Hartsville, S.C., bag manufacturer and bag recycler will open a $15 million wash line somewhere in California by next summer to recycle 40,000 pounds of plastic bags a day and operate 24 hours, seven days a week. The company has a similar facility in North Vernon, Ill.
However, a last-minute compromise to gain the support of retailers has some dismayed. The reason? The modified bill gives retailers participating in the state-mandated programs a safe-haven pre-emption from any local laws communities pass that place fees, bans, levies or restrictions on plastic bags.
The compromise comes just nine months after plastic bag manufacturers persuaded San Francisco city officials not to enact a 17 cent-per-bag tax, and as a battle rages in British Columbia over a proposed 25 cent tax on plastic bags. San Francisco instead adopted a target of reducing the number of plastic bags handed out by 10 million, or 20 percent, by the end of 2006. That action could keep 95 tons of plastic out of the city's waste stream.
``To take away the rights of local communities'' to address recycling issues in a manner most suited to their individual needs ``does not help the process,'' said Stephanie Barger, executive director of Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif. ``It hinders the process.''
Gary Liss, president of Gary Liss & Associates, a public policy strategy firm focused on solid waste and recycling in Loomis, Calif., agreed. ``Some of the tools that local governments are seriously considering and adopting'' to meet zero waste goals adopted by the state ``are those that have been pre-empted by AB2449.''
Yet others said that the mandate is an example of how industry, legislators, customers and environmentalists can work together to forge a compromise beneficial to all, and that the six-year pilot program - it has a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2013 - should be given the opportunity to show that it can work.
``It gives industry a chance to demonstrate to the environmental community that we can make this work,'' said Larry Johnson, chairman of the Progressive Bag Alliance. ``And if the industry doesn't make it work, shame on the industry, and the environmental folks will exercise their options at that time.''
``It is the best recycling bill for plastics we have been able to move in the last 20 years,'' said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento, Calif., nonprofit organization out to advance resource recovery, prevent pollution and increase recycling. ``The retail sector has proven to be a very formidable foe and so far we have been stuffed every day'' in efforts to enact bans or taxes and the compromise was ``the breakthrough'' needed to pass the measure.
``I would rather have some level of recycling measure than hope for communities to enact them,'' said Murray. ``I believe in local action when stymied at the state level, and CAW has been an advocate of advance disposal feels for more than 20 years. But the reality is that no one has been successful in getting a single local government to adopt a fee or a recycling mandate of plastic grocery bags. And if you can't get San Francisco to adopt some type of bag fee, I'm not sure any community can.''
Besides, he said that the take-back requirement in the bill is stronger than in battery and cell phone recycling measures the state has passed.
Among other things, the bill requires that: bags be printed with the phrase, ``Please Return to a Participating Store for Recycling''; that retailers offer for sale to customers nondisposable bags made from cloth or more durable plastics such as polypropylene; and that bag makers work with retailers on the collection, transportation and recycling of the bags.
It also mandates that bag makers develop statewide educational programs to inform consumers on how to recycle plastic bags and the need to recycle plastic bags.
In addition, retailers that operate in less than 10,000 square feet can choose to participate in the program.
``This is a major opportunity to revitalize a program that has been in place at some supermarkets since the 1990s and bring more stores into the effort,'' said Laurie Hansen, strategic government communications strategist for PBA.
``We see this as a tremendous opportunity to move our effort to increase the recycling of plastic bags forward,'' said PBA's Johnson, noting that PBA has helped establish curbside recycling programs in 25 California cities in the past 18 months.
``It is the intent of the industry to move forward aggressively and to work with customers to reduce bag usage, increase recycling and to expand curbside collection of plastic bags'' and to create uniform signage in the state so that recycling bins are the same regardless of where one shops.
``The end game of this effort is to alleviate the litter issue and that is what we are trying to conquer,'' said Johnson. ``Let's give this program a chance to work and if it does, let's use it to expand into other areas. And, if it doesn't work, we'll cross that bridge at that time.''
According to California Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, who sponsored AB 2449, Californians throw away 19 billion plastic grocery bags per year, creating nearly 150,000 tons of waste annually. Currently only 2-4 percent of plastic film is recycled annually in California, with only 10 percent of that from bags, according to CAW.
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. In addition, plastic bags and film account for 45 percent of the litter in the Los Angeles River, according Los Angeles River Cleanup officials.