Already besieged by municipal bans and proposed bans on expanded polystyrene takeout packaging in California, plastics packaging companies now face three bills moving through the state Legislature.
``We have been the target of restrictive legislation for a long time, and right now, it is pretty hot in California,'' said James Lammers, vice president of environmental affairs and general counsel for Dart Container Corp., a privately owned $1.4 billion packaging company in Mason, Mich. About 15 percent of the food-service industry's packaging sales in the United States are made to California - an amount nearly twice as high as any other state, he said.
Of most concern to the industry: the Toxic Free Oceans Act of 2007, which passed the California Senate last month and is currently before the Assembly.
That measure, which was introduced as a ban on perfluorinated compounds, now bans companies from manufacturing, processing or distributing any plastics packaging ranging in size from 8 ounces to 5 gallons that contain styrene, vinyl chloride, bisphenol A, perfluoroctanoic acid, nonylphenol or alkylphenol.
The amended bill mirrors one of the proposals advanced in February by the Ocean Protection Council, a state commission charged with protecting California's oceans. OPC contends 60-80 percent of all marine debris and 90 percent of floating marine debris is plastics. ``Of all the bills that impact plastics, that is the one that has the most legs on it,'' said one legislative source.
``If this is passed, everything will be knocked out,'' said Michael Levy, director of the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va. ``It would pretty much eliminate plastics packaging.''
In addition, the Plastic and Marine Debris Reduction, Recycling and Composting Act - passed by the Natural Resources Committee and now at the Committee on Appropriations - would effectively ban polystyrene takeout containers, as it would require single-use food-service packaging to be compostable or recycled at a rate of 25 percent or more. A third bill, AB 820, would ban the use of PS packaging at state colleges and universities, correctional institutions and mental health facilities. It is also before the Committee on Appropriations.
``As currently drafted, the bills would fundamentally change how our downstream customers run their business,'' Lammers said. No disposable materials would meet the requirements of the debris reduction act, he said, and the Toxic Free Oceans Act would severely restrict restaurants, hospitals and food- service operations from delivering food.
``Because of the broad reach of the legislative bills and the broad net they cast, we are able to get the attention of people, including legislators,'' he said. ``We are trying to communicate to decision makers, as well as customers, the negative impact these bills will have.'' Lammers noted that Dart owns plants in Corona and Lodi that serve the California market.
``What do they really think they are accomplishing with these proposals?'' asked John Burke, president of the Foodservice & Packaging Institute Inc. in Falls Church, Va. ``It just defeats the purpose of single-use packaging. I am staggered that they want to roll things back 100 years.''
Single-use packaging, Burke said, was designed to prevent health problems that were occurring at that time. ``Public safety and health is the basic reason we have these products today,'' he said.
The industry claims the bans are not based on sound science, ignore public health concerns and do not focus on life-cycle analysis of competing packaging materials. However, these arguments are falling on deaf ears with legislators who are focused on reducing marine litter in California and who consider PS packaging too difficult a product to recycle.
``Basically, they tell us they don't care,'' Burke said. ``I don't know how you penetrate that. It is pretty frustrating.''
Levy concurs: ``Most of our critics in California are just teeing things up. They want to use restrictive product bans, particularly on plastics, as a solution to marine debris litter.''
In the past year, several California cities - including San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Monica, Calabasas and Emeryville - have passed measures that ban expanded PS takeout containers, joining Berkeley and Malibu, which had enacted such bans earlier.
That quintet of new bans has varying effective dates, starting as early as July 1 in San Francisco and as late as March 31, 2008, in Calabasas. The most stringent: Emeryville, which bans not just single-service takeout containers and packaging, but PS forks, spoons and knives.
There also is no exemption in Emeryville for food-service providers, unlike Oakland, where companies must only use alternative materials if they cost the same or are less expensive, and San Francisco, where a business can obtain an exemption if the cost of an alternative to single-use takeout expanded PS packaging is 15 percent higher or more.
``It is incumbent upon us and the companies who use these packaging materials to address the performance benefits of these materials and explain why these packaging materials are used,'' said Tim Shestek, chief lobbyist and director of state and local government affairs in Sacramento for ACC.
``A number of industries rely on this type of packaging, including medical and consumer products,'' he said. ``It will take a lot of grunt work to get people to understand the breadth of what this would impact. But it is tough to get folks to focus on that,'' as they are locked in on reducing marine litter.
The challenge is to get the legislators to study the whole issue, rather than just start with a ban, Levy said.
Companies that make plastic food-service products agree marine litter is a problem in California. ``It is understandable that those people would want to eradicate those litter problems or at least significantly improve them,'' Lammers said. ``But the fact of the matter is that if our products were banned tomorrow, the litter stream is not going to change in terms of volume.''
Burke agrees. ``If they ban polystyrene tomorrow, they would still have litter. I think that it is a case of people not sitting down and thinking about how widespread single-use packaging is in daily life - not just on the commercial side, but all of the packaging used in retail.''
At the same time, the industry needs to try and listen more carefully and work more closely with state and local governments, Lammers said.
``The industry has to agree that there are things that can be done differently by our own industry to address these litter issues and we need to get other contributors to these litter issues to also step up.
``We need to encourage our customers and their customers to do the best they can in terms of preventing litter,'' and to invest more ``sweat equity to educate people about the impact of not littering.''
Dart's Lammers also said the plastics industry can wield ``financial muscle'' to champion and more widely distribute information about recycling programs that already exist and work. And, he noted, it must keep an open mind about new technologies in manufacturing, recycling and collection.