Two trade groups, the American Chemistry Council and the California Film Extruders and Converters Association, deserve credit for taking a new approach to halting the wave of plastic bag bans sweeping California.
Both proposals, which are under consideration by the state Legislature, fall under the category of what environmentalists call producer responsibility. Basically, manufacturers are admitting that their products contribute to a problem in this case, litter and marine debris and they're stepping up to help the state pay for the cleanup.
Assembly Bill 1141, the proposal being advanced by ACC's Progressive Bag Affiliates, would require manufacturers and distributors of single-use bags to pay an as-yet undetermined fee for each bag they sell to stores, with the annual total capped at $25 million the estimated amount that California spends on cleaning up plastic bag litter.
The bill also would mandate that bags contain 20 percent recycled content by July 1, 2011, increasing to 25 percent in 2013 and 30 percent in 2014. That should help create demand for recycled material, which should encourage recycling efforts and discourage littering or landfilling bags after just one use.
Senate Bill 531, which CFECA supports, sets a one-thousandth of a cent fee on each plastic or paper bag, with no cap on the amount collected. The bill also encourages the use of recycled content, although it does not set specific targets.
What would the plastics industry get in return for the millions of dollars of new state revenue? How about an end to the chore of dealing with bag tax and ban proposals in communities across the state?
Bag-related proposals have been like a Whac-a-Mole game the past few months they pop up in different places, requiring an urgent response from the industry. And they never seem to permanently disappear.
Industry's response to bans up until now has been carrot-and-stick: First, offer to help with voluntary recycling efforts; if that fails and a ban passes, challenge it in court. In many communities, just the threat of a costly lawsuit has been enough to throw cold water on a would-be bag ban.
But that won't last forever. That's why ACC is proposing that in exchange for its support of producer responsibility, the state would prevent local governments from adopting, implementing, or enforcing laws that ban plastic bags. That would put an end to new bans and nullify laws in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Fairfax and several other cities that have been challenged in court.
Perhaps a compromise would be to include a grandfather clause allowing those cities where local legislators obviously have strong feelings about this issue to keep their bans in place.
Embracing producer responsibility is a rare move for the plastics industry. Will it become a trend, with fees levied on plastic bags in other states, or on other unpopular plastic products including polystyrene carryout containers and disposable drink cups? Perhaps.
In general, we oppose taxes on plastics products, because it can create an uneven playing field. But this bag issue is serious and persistent, and industry efforts to deal with it have been insufficient. This new strategy represents a big step forward, and we hope legislators and environmentalists take the industry up on the offer.