The growing movement to ban plastic grocery bags has film recyclers and bag makers trying to figure out the best way to approach an issue that threatens their livelihood.
It's an issue the plastics industry thought it had overcome when California passed a measure last year preventing communities from levying fees or taxes on plastic bags and mandating plastic-bag recycling at grocery stores starting July 1.
But then San Francisco passed a law earlier this year requiring grocery stores with more than $2 million in sales and retailers and pharmacy chains with five or more stores to use only recyclable paper bags, reusable cloth bags or compostable plastic bags at checkout counters. The move prompted other cities, mostly in California, to look at the issue.
``The industry is grappling with what being environmentally responsible for their product means to them,'' said one industry source who wished to remain anonymous. ``It is a rude awakening and a harsh realization'' - especially since the four largest plastic grocery bag manufacturers started the Progressive Bag Alliance in 2005 to develop solutions to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in landfills and as litter, hoping that would ward off bag taxes and bans.
Whether any of the half-dozen proposed plastic-bag bans in California cities, as well as proposed bans in Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; or Boston, will become a reality isn't clear. Oakland, Calif., is considered the most likely city to follow in the footsteps of San Francisco, whose ban is scheduled to go into effect this fall.
``We are concerned with cities playing follow-the-leader with San Francisco and requiring degradable or compostable bags,'' said Patty Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif. ``It is discouraging to me because I think bag recycling is poised to make a huge leap as companies look for cheaper feedstocks.''
Moore works on recycling issues with the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., and with the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma.
``There is a huge demand for this material, new markets are opening up every day, and I don't think we have begun to explore all the potential uses,'' she said. ``Supply is not keeping up with demand. Within three to five years, bag recycling will be a normal recycling material.''
But potential recycling opportunities mean little to legislators confronted with litter issues in their communities.
``This is not just a bag issue,'' to them, but an attempt to curtail litter that is focused on plastics, Moore said.
Jack Riopelle, chairman of the Film and Bag Federation - a business unit of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and president and part owner of Wisconsin Film & Bag Co. in Shawano, Wis., agreed.
``Right now, there are two targets the environmentalists have earmarked: the plastic carryout bag and polystyrene cup and food containers,'' he said. ``It all started in California because California has an enormous litter problem and does not enforce its litter laws. Then other cities and states see this and their proposed solution is not to change the behaviors, but ban the product.''
Legislators see bags in trees and in waterways and they get upset because they are concerned about storm drains being clogged and bags hanging from trees, said Dave Dunning, raw materials director for Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. in Springdale, Ark., which recycles grocery bags into composite decking materials.
But Dunning said legislators need to be told plastic bags are being recycled by AERT and its competitors, like Trex Co. Inc. in Winchester, Va., which turn plastic shopping bags into durable products.
In 2006, AERT recycled roughly 125 million pounds of plastics, including grocery bags and stretch film. Trex said it recycles 50 percent of the grocery bags collected in the U.S. for recycling each year. Trex buys 300 million pounds of used polyethylene annually, largely grocery bags and pallet stretch film.
``We need to get them the information on how much is being recycled,'' Dunning said.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated 5.2 percent of plastic bags and sacks were recycled in 2005, but efforts are under way to boost that rate.
The Progressive Bag Alliance, for example, has developed a tool kit to help retailers implement at-store bag recycling and worked with cities in California during the past two years to boost the number of towns with curbside plastic bag recycling to 48.
Donna Dempsey, the Film and Bag Federation's executive director, said the plastics industry needs to let municipalities know the alternatives and risks of mandating that grocery carryout bags be biodegradable or compostable. FBF is preparing to announce an initiative on behalf of bag makers that sources said would be announced in June, but Dempsey said she was not ready to discuss details.
``No one wants to put more and more into landfills,'' said Andy DeVilling, vice president of sales for StarPak Ltd., one of the SuperBag Corp. companies based in Houston and a PBA member.
``But you have to let the recycling stream develop,'' he said. ``Even though we appear to be under the gun, we look at this as a great opportunity to get the message out about recycling. We have to get people at the grass-roots level as involved in this as they get involved in shooting something down.''
DeVilling said the industry would be involved in an initiative to clean up the Los Angeles River basin - an area where plastic bag litter has prompted Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to begin studying whether it should mandate the use of compostable bags.
He hopes that initiative and others being planned will help shape the plastic bags debate in a different perspective.
But whether it does, depends on the attitude the industry takes, said the anonymous source. ``It will only tone things down if it is ongoing and successful,'' the source said. ``If the industry does this just to get it over the current hump, the legislative initiatives will be back in six months.''
``The industry has to be more responsive,'' not just about bags, but all of its products that have the potential to end up as litter, said Stephanie Barger, director of the Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif.
More could be accomplished, Barger said, ``if the industry could just focus on cleaning up their own act and not fighting us.''