Environmentalists aren't the only ones who think the plastics business needs to clean up its act. Some of the industry's leading officials think so, too.
Activist Stephanie Barger of the Earth Resource Foundation joined three leaders from the film and bag sector to speak about the impact of plastic bags on the environment at the Plastics News Executive Forum in San Diego, Feb. 25-28. There, plastics representatives urged participants to end the ``us vs. them'' attitude, even after Barger explained her group's ``Campaign Against the Plastic Plague,'' aimed at eliminating single-use plastic packages.
Much of the action in California, and around the world, centers on retail plastic bags. Bags are a highly visible form of waste when they show up on the state's beaches and a highly harmful one when they wash into the oceans.
Barger blamed a throwaway American society that promotes ``fast-track trash or fast-track plastic.'' Americans need to recycle and reuse the plastic items.
``Our mission is the elimination of single-use disposable plastic, because of the immediate harmful effect on global ecosystems, economics and public health,'' she said.
Barger said she is not against plastic or manufacturing. ``If you can guarantee that you can keep it out of our watershed and out of our oceans - produce away,'' she said. But she did raise questions about the health effects of chemicals in some plastics, including PVC and Teflon.
Peter Grande, president of the California Film Extruders & Converters Association in Newport Beach, said industry needs to change its practices, especially when it comes to loose resin pellets. He showed a picture of rail siding by a plant in Southern California littered with piles of pellets.
``This is a problem that the industry can control,'' he said. The pellets too often end up in marine debris.
Although Grande said he could argue with what he considers to be one of Barger's more outrageous statements - that there are six times more plastic particles than plankton in the ocean - he said that's not the point. ``The point is that there's a lot of plastic out in the ocean,'' he said.
``I really don't want to stand up here and make excuses about why the environmentalists are wrong, or why we need more science. They may be wrong. We may need more science. But we control our own destiny,'' said Grande, also the founder and chief executive officer of Command Packaging in Vernon, Calif.
A longtime plastics lobbyist, Laurie Hansen of the Progressive Bag Alliance, said too often people in the plastics business think attacks on plastics are ``just a cycle'' and will go away on their own. City budget cuts in the mid-1990s seemed to fade interest in the movement, but it returned.
``Now here in the 2000s, again recycling is back and back with a vengeance, and it has taken on a different phase,'' Hansen said. ``That phase is not another cycle this time. It's people like you and me who are sick and tired of seeing litter on our streets, of opening packages that have so many layers to them that we're disgusted with having to throw that away.''
Hansen outlined legislative and legal moves in California targeting plastics.
An environmental group's lawsuit over trash in the Los Angeles River resulted in a court ruling that the city must cut all trash in its storm water by 2013. Forum speakers displayed slides showing plastic trash floating on the river after heavy rains.
San Francisco and several other cities have banned expanded polystyrene takeout food containers and a few are even targeting all food-service packaging that is not recyclable or compostable. A statewide foam PS ban failed last year.
Other proposed statewide legislation that also failed to become law last year included a ban on ``excessive packaging,'' a law curtailing litter and marine debris and a new resin identification code for containers made from corn-based polylactide resin.
Hansen expects these proposals and more will be back on the agenda in the Legislature this year.
One idea that did become law in California in 2006 was mandatory bag recycling at grocery stores, drug stores and retailers. Hansen said the PBA supported the statewide regulation to avoid the hodgepodge of local rules, which have included fees, bans or other restrictions on plastic bags. The new state law pre-empts local legislation.
Hansen said the industry-funded PBA wants results. ``It wasn't smoke and mirrors, it was out there getting things done,'' she said.
Hansen explained the Progressive Bag Alliance's recycling campaign, which she said is rejuvenating in-store bag recycling. The group also advocates using fewer bags, by asking stores to stop double-bagging and putting more items in each bag.
That may sound like treason from people that make bags for a living. ``The bag manufacturers said no it's not. There are too many bags being sold. There are too many bags being used. Our businesses therefore are being based on a false economic model,'' she said.
The Progressive Bag Alliance also developed educational materials, signs at stores to promote the recycling of bags and paid for bill boards and print advertisements.
Another speaker, Frank Ruiz, who is technical director for Heritage Bag Co., in Carrollton, Texas, said the trash bag maker has invested heavily in compostable bags, to carry yard waste, food waste from restaurants and grocery stores, and the bio-plastics of the future to municipal composting centers.
Heritage Bag built its own testing equipment. The company compounds its own biodegradable resins through its sister company, Heritage Plastics Inc.
Although municipal composting is still rare in much of the United States, Heritage Bag is selling its compostable bags to more than 200 grocery stores in the Northeast and West Coast.
Grande, of CFECA, said the plastics industry risks becoming ``irrelevant'' in the environmental debate, because too few companies are active in the public arena. He urged executives to join trade associations.
`''You've got to take the approach that you are the leaders of your business, and as a result you're a pillar in your community. And so you now you have a personal responsibility to be part of the solution,'' he said.