A series of recommendations from the Ocean Protection Council in California could lead to more bans and taxes on plastics packaging.
The report, published July 29, calls for producer responsibility for the take-back of packaging waste, and bans or fees on commonly littered items such as plastic bags and polystyrene containers.
``Reducing or preventing packaging waste is a key element in reducing litter,'' said the report. ``If we generate less packaging, there is less waste available to become ocean litter.''
The report is the culmination of an effort that began 17 months ago with a series of recommendations to combat marine litter.
``We need to charge forward and have an overarching policy that is no less vigorous'' than previous efforts by coastal cities, said Lt. Gov. John Garamendi at a news conference.
Also, the industry is contending with a proposal by the mayor-elect and current alderman of Portland, Ore., Sam Adams, to place a tax of 5-20 cents on plastic bags; as well as a pending law in California called AB2058.
The California bill, set for an Aug. 4 hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee, would amend the state recycling mandate and require stores to charge at least 25 cents per plastic bag, starting July 1, 2011, if they can't achieve a 70 percent bag diversion rate based on use reduction and recycling rates.
People need to know that switching to alternative products will have an adverse impact on greenhouse-gas emissions and energy use, said Keith Christman, senior packaging director for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va. ``We have to continue to increase our effort to prevent litter and marine debris, and get people to understand that plastic bags can and are being recycled. We agree that plastics don't belong in waterways.''
But those arguments don't appear to be resonating as communities and state legislators on the West Coast have begun to call for more bans or taxes on plastics packaging.
``This isn't an issue of paper vs. plastics. The issue is sustainability, not which disposable bag to use,'' said Sarah Abramson, coastal resources director for Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group in Santa Monica, Calif.
``People feel that we can't recycle our way out of this, and that there is an alternative in the reusable bag,'' Abramson said. ``Even if you had the most successful recycling program, with a 60 percent recycling rate, you'd still have billions of bags going into landfills or winding up as marine litter.''
She praised the city of Seattle, which a week ago banned PS takeout food packaging and placed a 20 cent tax on plastic bags effective Jan. 1.
``We applaud Seattle. We feel this is the beginning of the momentum for this issue,'' Abramson said.
Without citing details, Christman said ACC was ``looking at our options going forward'' in Seattle.
Stephen Joseph, a lawyer with the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a group of bag makers and distributors fighting against bans and taxes in California, said: ``We may or may not win in California. The test of our success is what we can do to change public opinion nationwide.''
ACC also has argued that the plastic bag tax will cost the average family $400 per year but most legislators believe people will buy reusable bags that typically sell for 99 cents.
``This is a voluntary fee,'' said Richard Conlin, Seattle City Council president. ``You only have to pay it if you choose not to use reusable bags.''
According to Christman, the recent interest in bag fees is not driven by litter reduction but a desire on the part of communities and grocers to add revenue to their coffers.
``Governments around the country are cash-strapped and looking at ways to raise tax revenue,'' Christman said. ``[Grocers] would be able to get a portion of the tax revenue and would be able to sell both the paper and the plastic bags, as well as the reusable bags.''
Seattle, for example, projects that its plastic and paper bag tax will generate $3.5 million annually to be used for litter collection and recycling initiatives. In addition, stores in Seattle with less than $1 million annual revenue get to keep the entire 20 cent fee collected per bag, while larger stores will get to keep 5 cents of the fee.
Similarly, Los Angeles has urged California to return 15 cents of the proposed 25 cent state fee to communities.
The Seattle tax on plastic bags, the first in the nation, threatens to unravel the momentum the plastics industry has built in the past year for mandated at-store recycling as an alternative to bans or fees. Its PS ban continues the momentum that has seen 16 cities enact bans in the past two years.
In the last three months, Malibu and Manhattan Beach joined San Francisco in enacting bag bans after a 15-month period during which there were no additional plastic bag bans except for one in Oakland that was overturned in court
Joseph said the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition plans to sue to overturn the Manhattan Beach bag ban, but it does not plan to get involved in the Seattle legislation.
``What Seattle has done is wrong, but we can't get into every fight,'' he said.
The coalition earlier this month filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County.