Three years ago, there were only five cities in the United States with bans on single-use plastic carryout bags, and the industry was convinced that it was simply a California coastal issue that would eventually go away.
How wrong they were.
Today, 74 U.S. communities have bans on plastic bags, and Los Angeles — the nation's second-largest city — is set to join them in four months once it completes a required environmental impact report.
What's more, one-third of those bans are now outside of California, and three of the 14 largest cities in the U.S and five of the 29 largest, have plastic bag bans.
How did the issue get so out of control when the industry worked so diligently to defend plastic bags?
It's simple. The industry never understood — and still doesn't understand — that the real issue is that plastic bags are a very visible piece of litter.
Instead, it has focused on explaining that the manufacture of plastic bags has a lower overall environment impact than the manufacture of paper bags, that a ban will cost people jobs, and that many of the bans contain a hidden tax, i.e, a fee on paper bags.
None of those arguments — no matter how valid — create a recycling solution that solves the plastic bag litter problem.
“Plastic bags often become litter after being properly disposed,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “They blow out of trash cans, garbage trucks and landfills. This is one instance where recycling doesn't seem to be the answer.”
But even in the aftermath of the 13-1 vote by the Los Angeles City Council in late May to draft a plastic bag ban, the industry stubbornly stuck to the same arguments.
“We are ... disappointed by the council's decision to effectively disregard the facts and impose a misguided policy to ban plastic and paper bags [as] bag bans have not been proven to reduce litter,” said Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance and vice president of sustainability for bag manufacturer Hilex Poly LLC.
“This ordinance also calls for a regressive, hidden tax [on paper bags] without voter approval,” said Daniels. “The city of Los Angeles [has] put in motion a misguided and onerous policy that threatens the jobs of ... nearly 2,000 statewide.”
Even longtime plastics industry consultant Allan Griff, in a letter to Plastics News, expressed disappointment that the industry responses to the L.A. decision focused on “money and jobs.”
But even Griff suggested that the industry needs to “stress the environmental advantages of the bags ... and point to the bag-tossers as litter-pigs whose habits should not deprive the law-abiding majority” of those advantanges.
The stark reality is that legislators don't care about the environmental advantages of plastic bags. If the industry sticks to the same strategy, it will only help fulfill the prophesy one industry executive made three years ago that there won't be any plastic carryout bags in California in 10 years.
And that reality might come sooner — and spread widely across the U.S.