In an effort to halt increasing efforts by individual California cities to ban plastic carryout bags and to prevent a 25 cent statewide fee at carryout that could effectively ban their products, two plastics industry groups are embracing the concept of producer responsibility in a pair of proposals before the California Legislature.
It is the first time the industry has advocated an approach beyond recycling for plastic bags and could lead to calls for producer responsibility on other products and in other states.
The proposals from the American Chemistry Council and the California Film Extruders and Converters Association both focus on an upfront fee on producers and distributors of plastic and paper carryout bags, the use of recycled content in plastic bags, and provisions that would prevent local governments from enacting or enforcing bans.
We are being more aggressive on the offensive side and not just playing defense, said Tim Shestek, director of state, government and grassroots affairs in California for ACC, which is based in Arlington, Va.
We recognize that reducing litter and increasing recycling are environmental issues that industry is responsible for, Shestek said. Our bill represents out-of-the-box thinking and demonstrates our willingness to be part of making recycling a success. If the industry is going to talk about supporting recycling, we have to become a significant player and this is a reflection of that. We are willing to help fund ongoing recycling and market development activities.
But Stephanie Barger, executive director of Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif., questions the extent of the industry's planned commitment to producer responsibility.
What we really need are actual recycling plants in America, Barger said. So my question would be, are they going to build them, are they going to help underwrite the cost of recycling, and help make sure that the plastic can be made back into another single-use product?
More recycling doesn't stop all of the destruction that occurs to get the materials that are initially needed to make single-use products.
Committee hearings will begin April 13 on the ACC-backed bill, Assembly Bill 1141, and on Senate Bill 531, which CFECA supports.
The bills are just two of many that would affect the plastics industry and that are under consideration in the California Legislature this year. Others include a pair of bills that would require large California supermarkets to charge customers 25 cents on all single-use carryout bags, including green bags.
Still others include bills that would ban polystyrene packaging, require single-use bottles to have caps that are affixed to the container, ban PVC packaging, expand the bottle-deposit program to include wine and alcoholic beverages, ban bisphenol A from children's products, require truth-in-advertising for compostable bags, and create an extended product responsibility program for packaging that would be administered by the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
To be considered by the Legislature, bills in California must be reported to fiscal committees by May 1.
The bag bills are going to be right up at the top of the list, and the ban on PS food containers and the producer-responsibility bill also have attracted a lot of interest, Shestek said. But the bills that propose banning chemicals will be looked upon differently because of the Green Chemistry Initiative that California enacted last session. I think people will be questioning why they are debating individual bans when there is a program in place to deal with that.
Environment groups view the industry proposals embracing producer responsibility for plastic bags skeptically.
Sarah Abramson, director of coastal resources for Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, Calif., said she doesn't think it is surprising, because of the recommendation of the state Ocean Protection Council, that the state adopt policies to curb the use of single-use plastics through prohibitions and fees.
Our biggest concern with AB 1141 and S 531 is that it puts the fee on manufacturers, she said. Unless the consumer is on the receiving end of the fee and it hits them in the pocketbook, it is not going to reduce plastic bag use. We don't feel that it would be adequate enough to change consumer behavior. We want people to use reusable bags.
But another environmental activist in California wonders if environmental groups in the state should work to enact some form of producer responsibility, even if it is modest, rather than stay focused on a 25 cent fee at checkout for single-use carryout bags.
It is interesting that they have put together some options rather than just oppose the legislation that is introduced. We can't always be so greedy with the policies we pursue, said the environmental group leader. Do we work for the 25 cent bag proposal or do we try to negotiate up the producer-responsibility aspect?
Public sentiment may not be with you forever, and it is possible that the window of opportunity may have passed for state policy makers to adopt a 25 cent fee, said the environmental executive. We can't always be so focused on getting the perfect policy.
AB 1141, the bill being advanced by ACC's Progressive Bag Affiliates group, has five key provisions. It would:
* Extend the current at-store recycling mandate until Jan. 1, 2017, and require manufacturers or distributors of plastic bags to arrange for the collection, transportation and recycling if a store makes that request.
* Prohibit other governmental bodies in the state from adopting, implementing, or enforcing laws that ban plastic bags, effectively nullifying existing bans in San Francisco, Santa Monica and Fairfax and several other cities where legislative bans have been challenged in court.
* Require manufacturers and distributors of single-use bags to pay an undetermined upfront fee for each bag they sell to stores, with the annual total fee capped at $25 million which represents the estimated amount California spends on litter cleanup of plastic bags.
* Create mandated levels of recycled content for single-use carryout plastic bags of 20 percent by July 1, 2011, 25 percent by July 1, 2013, and 30 percent by July 1, 2014, and require the amount of recycled content each bag contains to be printed on it in letters at least one-half-inch high.
* Establish a waste reduction goal of 50 percent for single-use carryout bags by 2014, using 2010 as a base line.
The bill also would change the existing state definition of a durable plastic bag to a smaller size.
S 531, which CFECA supports, specifies a set fee of 0.001 cent per plastic or paper bag, with no cap on the amount collected. The bill also encourages the use of recycled content but without any mandates for specific percentages or any time line. It does not set forth any waste-reduction goal, does not address the issue of extending mandated in-store recycling, and does not spell out a new definition of what constitutes a durable plastic bag.
The CFECA pre-exemption would grandfather in city bag bans adopted before Jan. 1, 2009. However, it would bar government agencies in those cities from receiving any of the funds collected under the producer-responsibility program unless their laws are repealed effectively forcing those communities to chose between a local ban or state funds for litter abatement and public education.
The bills are essentially the same with a couple of different elements, Shestek said. We have identified a specific fee and the CFECA bill has a goal of using recycled content, but without any specific mandates or guidelines.
Pete Grande, president and CEO of Command Packaging in Vernon, Calif., and a member of CFECA, said the two bills have the same objectives.
We want manufacturers to be responsible for the downstream effect their products have, he said. Our bill gives the CIWMB the power to select what products have an environmental footprint and recover from manufacturers a fee that would have to be paid upfront based on the amount of litter caused by the product.
And although the CFECA-backed bill does not mandate recycled content, Grande thinks such measures are needed.
If you really want to create a market for recycled film, you have to have government mandates, because when virgin prices drop, there is no financial incentive to collect plastic bags, Grande said.
Grande said he would be very surprised if extended producer responsibility does not pass. But environmentalists are not so sure.
In addition to her concern that a fee on manufacturers would not reduce the use of plastic bags, HTB's Abramson objects to the pre-exemption provisions in both bills. Local governments need the flexibility at the local level to choose what is best for their communities, she said.
However, Shestek said a statewide pre-emption is needed.
We need to get a uniform, consistent, statewide approach, he said. It creates difficulties if you have jurisdictions enacting different regulatory schemes because you have to have consistent standards statewide to create a market for recycled materials.
Besides, he said, a 25 cent fee at checkout lines isn't a policy the state ought to be pursuing in this economic climate. We feel our bill is more consumer-friendly, and it doesn't penalize industry to the point where their products are banned.
Shestek said he also finds it ironic that environmental groups have not stepped forward to work with industry to create a producer-responsibility program.
There have been calls by environmentalists over the years for increased producer responsibility and mandated content, he said. But now they are not interested in working with us on this.