Legislators in California failed to pass a plastic bag tax in the recently completed legislative session, but they did pass two bills that are being applauded by the American Chemistry Council.
The bills, AB 1879 and SB 509, require the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to develop a process to evaluate and regulate chemicals.
``Those two bills are reflective of what we have been advocating,'' said Tim Shestek, director of state affairs and grass-roots efforts in California for Arlington, Va.-based ACC.
``It is a groundbreaking effort to develop and implement a regulatory infrastructure to get those kinds of decisions out of the hands of legislators and into the hands of scientists.''
SB 509 establishes a state Toxics Information Clearinghouse to collect and maintain information on chemicals. AB 1879 requires TSC to establish a process by Jan. 1, 2011, to identify and prioritize chemicals that might be of concern and to establish a Green Ribbon Science advisory panel.
By the same date, TSC also must establish a process to evaluate chemicals and their potential alternatives ``in order to determine how best to limit exposure or to reduce the level of hazard posed by a chemical of concern.''
When evaluating chemicals, the department will be required to prepare a multimedia life-cycle evaluation for review by the state's Environmental Policy Council.
The evaluations, at the minimum, must address the impact of the chemicals on worker safety, public health, the environment, air pollution, surface water contamination and disposal.
The new law also gives TSC the authority to impose labeling and information requirements, manage what happens to a product at the end of its useful life, fund green chemistry initiatives, as well as ban chemicals, restrict their use and control access or limit exposure to them.
``There was a great deal of will to pass this policy in the last few days. Legislators had become very uncomfortable and uncertain about how they should weigh in on scientific questions'' regarding proposed chemical bans, Shestek said.
``I don't know if it will diminish the number of proposed chemical bans. But this is what is necessary to get these issues into scientific hands.''
Regardless, Shestek does not expect plastics-related bans and taxes to go away any time soon, particularly those related to plastic bags and polystyrene takeout packaging.
A proposed 25 cent tax on plastic and paper carryout bags and an expansion of an existing bottle bill to include many plastic consumer containers, such as laundry detergent bottles, died without a final vote as the California legislative session ended Sept. 1. Proposed bans on expanded PS takeout food packaging, PVC packaging and products for 3-year-old children and younger that contain bisphenol A had failed to muster enough votes in mid-August.
``Even though those bills got sidetracked, they will be back next year,'' Shestek said. ``There is a lot of momentum for action on plastic bags and takeout containers.''
He believes the bottle-bill expansion failed because it would have increased costs to the state when it is facing a $15 billion deficit. The bag tax failed because of reticence on the part of legislators to enact a fee on consumers at a time when food and fuel costs are rising.
But Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste in Sacramento, said squabbling between the Senate and Assembly killed both bills, despite support and momentum for them.
``The last two weeks of the legislative session were marked by a feud between the leadership of the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled Assembly,'' Murray said in an e-mail response to questions. ``The bottom line is that the bag proposal like the bottle-bill expansion proposal were held up because of internecine warfare between the Houses and not because of the policy or due to opposition from any interest group.''
In particular, Murray said the 25 cent fee on paper and plastic bags had the support of grocery chains, local governments, environmental groups and state officials.
``If the bill was taken up for a vote in the Senate, I am confident that we would have had the votes,'' Murray said. ``The final amendments included language specifically provided by the governor's secretary of resources and secretary of [the California Environmental Protection Agency]. We had every indication that the governor was going to sign the bill.
``But the final proposal was never granted a final vote in the state Senate,'' Murray said.
``At this point, we have no choice but to move ahead with local plastic bag bans,'' he said.
Shestek agreed that local initiatives will increase now that the state hasn't taken action on the issues. He also said the expected recommendations from the California Ocean Protection Council related to plastic bans also will intensify pressure for state action in 2009.
He added that the outcome of lawsuits filed by the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition to stop bag bans in Los Angeles and Manhattan Beach, Calif., could change what happens at the local level.
San Francisco is the only U.S. city with a plastic bag ban in effect. A handful of other U.S. cities have adopted bans. Most recently Westport, Conn., passed a ban on plastic bags Sept. 2 that will go into effect March 2.
``Our industry has to be more proactive,'' Shestek said.
``We need to do a better job of getting the recycling message out and do a more visible job of promoting that plastic bags are recyclable. If we want to see recycling take off and expand exponentially, we need to develop additional partners.''