Three impending bans on plastic products in northern California - two on plastic carryout bags and one on expanded polystyrene takeout containers - has the industry concerned about escalating momentum to use bans to solve litter problems without a full assessment of the total environmental impact.
Oakland became the second U.S. city in three months to ban petroleum-based plastic carryout bags when its city council approved the measure July 3 by a 6-0 vote with two abstentions. The measure has a second vote July 17 and would go into effect in late January. An earlier ban by San Francisco goes into effect Nov. 20.
The Oakland ban would apply to stores with sales of more than $1 million annually and require stores to offer shoppers compostable bags or paper bags that contain a minimum of 40 percent recycled content and that are 100 percent recyclable. The San Francisco ban applies to stores with annual sales of more than $2 million.
In addition, the community of Fairfax, about 18 miles north of San Francisco, is expected to adopt a petroleum-based plastic bag ban at its July 11 meeting; the five-member council unanimously endorsed the law in early June. It would go into effect in February and additionally ban the use of compostable bags after July 11, 2010 - the first ban of that type.
Bans on PS also are spreading. Capitola, south of the Bay area, became the sixth California city in the past 15 months to ban PS takeout containers when it made its 18-year-old voluntary ban mandatory in late June. But it delayed the July 1 implementation date for three months to survey retail establishments about enforcement issues and determine how many comply with the voluntary ban.
The mandatory ban also adds a requirement that restaurants use biodegradable or compostable containers. It also adds a hardship exemption if a retail establishment can show that the cost of the alternative products are more expensive - which they typically are.
``The sentiment is, `We don't care what the science is - let's do this,' '' said Michael Levy, director of the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va. ``The impact of the ban in Capitola is small because they have had a voluntary ban. But it is the idea of the momentum that is building around these bans that concerns us.
``What is continually driving things is the marine litter part of the issue,'' he said. ``There still is a litter problem on the Monterey Peninsula. People are upset about any plastics in the ocean. What's scary about the plastic bag issue is that [the bags] have a strong recycling market and network and they are on the public radar screen as high, if not higher, than polystyrene foam.''
Similarly, the Progressive Bag Alliance - a consortium of plastic bag manufacturers - was unable to convince Oakland to delay its ban, even though a California law mandating plastic bag recycling went into effect July 1.
``Yes, plastic bag recycling hasn't been as good as it should be,'' said Andy DeVilling, vice president of sales and marketing in Highland Village, Texas, for StarPak Ltd., a Superbag company and a member of PBA. ``But give the law a chance. Now there is no excuse for recycling not to be done. These bags are 100 percent recyclable and California is the first state in the nation to have a mandatory recycling law.
``We really believe that they moved forward without a proper assessment of the full impact on recycling or the total environment impact,'' DeVilling said. ``Oakland doesn't have a commercial composting facility, so the compostable bags will likely end up in a litter stream and could damage the recycling stream the state is trying to create.''
He added: ``Instead of prohibiting plastic bags, Oakland should be helping to promote the first mandated opportunity to recycle plastic bags statewide.''
Still, the number of proposed bans on bags is spreading. In addition to six in California, bans have been proposed in Austin, Texas; Phoenix; Boston; Portland, Ore.; Massachusetts; Baltimore and Annapolis, Md.
While there are only a few PS city bans still under consideration this year, California's most far-reaching anti-plastics measure is in the state Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee. No hearing has been scheduled, but it already has passed the state's Senate.
The bill, the Toxic Free Oceans Act of 2007, would ban companies from manufacturing, processing or distributing any plastics packaging ranging in size from 8 ounces to 5 gallons that contains styrene, vinyl chloride, bisphenol A, perfluoroctanoic acid, nonylphenol or alkylphenol.