Can plastic grocery bag makers recycle their way out of danger? The four largest U.S. bag makers along with the American Chemistry Council on April 21 announced an ambitious plan designed to remove some of the pressure they've been feeling from states and cities that want to ban or tax plastic bags.
The plan, which they're calling the Full Circle Recycling Initiative, sets a goal of using 40 percent recycled content in their single-use bags by 2015. The announcement of the plan was timed for maximum Earth Day exposure, with an initial exclusive story in USA Today. But the response from environmentalists, and apparently the rest of the news media, was a collective cold shoulder.
Mark Murray, executive director of Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste, told us: It is a little too little, a little too late, adding, the single-use plastic grocery bag is an anachronism whose cost to society, by any reasonable measure, far exceeds its value.
Others were equally critical. Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, told USA Today: It's annoying. And it's transparent. The death knell has sounded for plastic bags. They're just trying to continue to make a bad thing.
Management consultant Pam Murtaugh added: They're late to the party of good sense. In bragging about it now, they're only building their own glass house.
Notice the trend? Opponents of plastic bags believe they've won the war. They also think the public is on their side. If you follow their logic, you will think that bag taxes and bans are inevitable.
It's true that an avalanche of legislation eventually may kill the plastic bag. But retailers' anti-bag decisions are just as serious. Two nationwide U.S. grocers, Whole Foods Market Inc. and Trader Joe's, no longer offer plastic bags. Others are following suit.
If the public really prefers reusable cloth bags to disposable plastic, why do U.S. consumers use between 90 billion and 150 billion plastic bags annually?
I don't think it's too late to save plastic bags. The Full Circle Recycling Initiative is an important step, but bag makers will need help.
* They'll need help from retailers. Grocers need to be more serious about collecting bags for recycling. They need to improve the signage and location on bag-collection bins, and do some promotion of those efforts. Retailers need to stop encouraging consumers to take a plastic bag with every purchase.
* They'll need recycling programs to collect plastic bags. ACC estimates the Full Circle initiative will create demand for 300 million pounds of recycled material. Let's make sure communities understand that they now have an incentive to collect plastic bags.
* They'll need help educating consumers how to properly recycle, reuse, or dispose of used bags. If you don't want bags to end up as litter or marine debris, you have to support education about those problems not try to sweep them under the rug.
* And they'll need help changing consumer attitudes about plastic. The Take Another Look at Plastic and Plastics Make it Possible ad campaigns were successful. Essential2 is not. Let's go back to what works.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News and author of The Plastics Blog.