Plastic bag makers were encouraged by a Jan. 22 decision by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to set voluntary reduction goals rather than ban plastic supermarket carryout bags.
But plastic packaging manufacturers face continuing battles nationwide as legislators make plastic bags, takeout containers and PET bottles the target of efforts to reduce litter and marine debris.
``We knew this year was going to be a year where we had a lot of challenges'' said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, which includes the new Progressive Bag Affiliates. ``We consider the [Los Angeles] decision a step in the right direction.''
The LA County decision continues a recent trend of some cities backing away from bag bans. New York mandated in-store recycling Jan. 9 after considering a bag ban, and Annapolis, Md., decided in November to review its environmental policies, rather than focus on one product and ban bags.
``That is a positive change from a year ago,'' Christman said.
However, Whole Foods Market, which distributes 150 million bags annually, said Jan. 22 it will phase out plastic shopping bags at its 270 stores in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom by April 22.
``We are concerned when any retailer makes a decision that does not fully weigh the environmental impact,'' Christmas said. ``We do not believe Whole Foods has done a life-cycle analysis.''
On other fronts, the picture remains murky for expanded polystyrene takeout containers and plastic bags.
Alameda County Superior Court will hold a hearing Jan. 29 on the legality of a plastic bag ban in Oakland, Calif. The ban went into effect Jan. 18, but enforcement has been delayed pending the court ruling. The Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling contends the law should be struck down because the city did not conduct an environmental impact review as required by California Environmental Quality Act.
San Jose City Council will meet Feb. 1 to consider its plastic bag options, including a potential ban. It also will look at proposed bans on polystyrene takeout containers and PET water bottles at city facilities and events. Two separate bills in New Jersey propose a plastic bag ban and mandatory in-store plastic bag recycling. Maine has proposed a 20 cent fee on plastic bags.
It's much the same with PS takeout containers. In Santa Cruz, the city council made its 19-year-old voluntary ban on expanded PS takeout containers mandatory Jan. 22. Santa Cruz County is expected to enact a similar countywide ban Jan. 29.
A California proposal from the last legislative session to ban PS containers remains active. In addition, Washington state is looking to develop solutions to litter problems caused by PS takeout containers, plastic bags and PET water bottles in three bills introduced by state Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline.
Because the state's legislation ends Feb. 29, Chase said she introduced the bills ``to get the discussion started'' for the 2009 legislative session.''
``The plastics we are inflicting on our environment is not acceptable,'' said Chase in a phone interview Jan. 24. ``Manufacturers need to ask themselves, `What are we leaving for our grandchildren?' I think the plastics industry ought to get off their duffs. This is the new millennium. They need to take the leadership on the issue and come up with alternative products or get out of the way.''
The urgency of legislators to address the problems stems from their interest in reducing the volume of materials going into landfills and in reducing plastics litter that ends up as marine debris.
``We are encouraged that LA County didn't adopt a ban outright,'' said Tim Shestek, director of state and local government affairs in Sacramento for ACC. ``At least the county is willing to take a look at recycling.''
Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based group that had advocated a ban, but compromised and supported bag-reduction targets, withdrew its support at the end because a last-minute amendment cut each target by 5 percentage points.
``Some people may say 5 percent isn't a big deal, but that is a potential 300 million bags,'' said Kirsten James, water quality director for the organization. ``Recycling is part of the solution, but that isn't enough, because if you look at the numbers, less than 5 percent of the bags are recycled.''
Shestek disagreed. ``We definitely have our work cut out for us'' to achieve the 30 percent reduction in plastic bag use by the end of fiscal 2010, and the 65 percent reduction by the end of fiscal 2012, as set forth in the county's voluntary single-use bag reduction program.
Shestek said the plastics industry will need to support more public education campaigns, add more recycling bins and work with stakeholder groups to promote recycling.