Bans on plastic bags and takeout polystyrene containers aren't going to easily go away. In fact, they are only part of a larger effort to get rid of products seen as litter or marine debris, says Laurie Hansen, executive director of the Western Plastics Association.
And next on the horizon, she said, are extended producer responsibility laws.
“They are all happening because litter is happening and marine debris is happening,” Hansen said during a presentation at the Business of Plastics conference at NPE2012. “Litter and marine debris is the hot button issue on the West Coast. Paper and aluminum sink, but that's not what's targeted. It's what floats, and that's plastic.
“Environmentalists are running with that to enact bans,” said Hansen, who, along with the WPA, is based in Sacramento, Calif. “And local communities want manufacturers to pay for diversion and recycling. And, if that doesn't happen, they want to get rid of the product. There are many people who want disposables gone.”
Hansen has dealt with plastics industry issues in California as a lobbyist for more than 20 years.
“We need to talk as an industry about the issues and what's going on because there is a place for every type of plastic. We have to explain that to people. We all need to be active, not reactive.”
As an example of being proactive, she pointed out how Dart Container Corp. is doing “a great job” of recycling polystyrene food-service packaging, particularly in California, and how the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group of the Washington-based American Chemistry Council is paying for equipment to condense PS into bales to make it easier to recycle and transport it for recycling.
Related to that, Hansen said industry could help its own cause through greater use of recycled content in its products and make a lot of friends in the process.
“We also need to be talking to our detractors because they are the ones that have the public ear,” said Hansen. “We need to know what they're doing and they need to know what we're doing.”
One blossoming item on legislative agendas is extended producer responsibility, where the manufacturer is responsible for the cost of recovering that product at the end of its life.
In most EPR programs, governments set parameters for waste diversion, recycling, or both. Specifics of how to achieve those objectives are determined by the companies that are part of the supply chain for the product, or packaging that needs to be recovered at the end of its life.
Today more than 30 European countries have some type of EPR packaging law, and the concept has been gaining momentum in Canada the past six years.
In the U.S., EPR has been mostly focused on electronic goods — 25 states now have some type of e-waste take-back program.
Other issues are emerging in California and spreading along the West Coast, that the industry needs to keep its attention on.
“In the year coming up, we will have issues very important to the plastics industry,” she said.
For example, the city of Los Angeles is considering whether to ban both plastic and paper bags, or to ban plastic bags and place a fee on paper bags.