In the first five months of the year, the number of plastic bag bans in the U.S. has doubled, from 37 to 75, after almost doubling, from 19 to 37, in 2011. The plastic bag industry has been unable to stop major U.S. cities such as Seattle, Austin, Texas, and now, most likely, Los Angeles, from banning plastic bags.
Two-thirds of the bans are in California, and plastic bag bans are now in place in three of the 14 largest and five of the 29 largest cities in the U.S., with Los Angeles — the nation's second-largest city, with a population of 4 million — set to join that group.
But the largest plastic bag manufacturer in the U.S. is still convinced that the facts are on its side and intends to continue to try to educate legislators and the public about the environmental facts surrounding plastic bags and the effect of bans on jobs, the environment and the economy.
“What do all three of those [large] cities have in common?” asked Mark Daniels, vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for plastic bag maker Hilex Poly Co. LLC, during a May 31 phone interview. “They are all extremely liberal, the city councils are all Democratic, all consider themselves conscientious and all are influenced by the loudest constituent — the environment activist community.
“This issue is California-centric and environmentalists have made plastic bags a symbol” of waste, litter and environmental problems, said Daniels, who is also chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of Washington.
Plastic bags are “three-tenths of 1 percent of all the litter in California,” he said. But, “it is visible litter and lighter than water, so it floats on the surface,” making it an easy target for environmentalists. “Plastic bag ordinances are a perfect example of what happens when city council members base decisions on junk science and ignore the facts,” he said.
The battle in Los Angeles isn't over yet. But with a 13-1 vote to endorse a policy to ban plastic bags, it is not likely the city will reverse its stance after the ordinance is drafted and comes to council for a vote later this year.
“I am not sure what the industry can do at this point to make its voice heard,” said Kevin Kelly, CEO of film packaging maker Emerald Packaging Inc., in an email.
“Clearly plastic is a better choice than paper, and it is not film that is floating in the Pacific, despite the arguments made by the other side,” said Kelly whose Union City, Calif., company makes packages such as wicketed polyethylene bags, laminated stand-up pouches, and zippered and hermetic-seal bags.
Kelly said he thinks the Illinois recycling bill — which is close to becoming law — “has many good points, as does the growing recognition that carryout bags need to use post-consumer resin as a way to jump-start recycling.” The recycling bill has passed both chambers of the Illinois Legislature and is awaiting action by a conference committee to resolve slight differences in the two versions of the bill.
“I think the industry has done a good job defending itself in Los Angeles,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately the environmentalists have pulled the heart strings of council members with emotional arguments.
“We do have one hope left in Los Angeles,” said Kelly. “We need to be lobbying to make sure the [environmental impact report] is fair, talking to the public, and raising the banner for bags. But clearly another path has to be followed.
“We need, as an industry, to bring these initiatives together and operate at statehouse levels,” he said. “Fighting city by city just isn't a good strategy going forward. But Los Angeles is important enough we need to keep going” there.
The bans in California alone affect a market with nearly 37.7 million people, or 12 percent of the U.S. population. And Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, predicts single-use plastic shopping bags will be gone from California within five years.
“I've got to believe that the executives at Hilex and SPI are kicking themselves for not embracing the bag tax in California and Seattle when they had the chance,” Murray said.
“Eliminating the pollution and costs of plastic bags at the local level has proven to be a surprisingly easy sell. We're on track to have bag bans in half the states before the end of the year,” he said.
Bans not only take away large potential end markets, they threaten to damage the U.S. recycling infrastructure, opponents say.
“It is destroying the plastic bag and film recycling infrastructure,” particularly in California, said Daniels, whose firm will recycle 50 million pounds of film and bags in 2012.
“Plastic bag and film recycling has gone up in the last 10 years,” said Daniels. “That is the most common-sense solution to the problem, not banning bags. We think we're on the right path.”
But some legislators and environmentalists see it differently. To them, industry recycling initiatives haven't solved the problem — not even in California, where there is mandated plastic bag recycling at grocery stores and close to 600 recycling bins on beaches thanks to industry funding.
“Los Angeles has taken a magnificent step forward with the vote of the City Council today,” said council member Paul Koretz after it voted May 23 to instruct the city attorney to draft an ordinance to ban plastic bags and conduct a state-required environmental impact report.
“There are huge environmental benefits when we say no to single-use bags,” said Koretz. “This action will also help us cut sanitation cleanup costs and get blight out of our neighborhoods, which is great news at a time when cities and the state are struggling to provide services due to severe budgetary challenges.”
The city of Los Angeles has estimated that more 2.7 billion single-use bags are used annually in the city, and their use costs LA consumers and taxpayers more than $75 million a year in higher grocery costs and pollution cleanup costs. It is also estimated the city spends $3 million annually to clean up and keep plastic bags out of impaired water bodies.
“Plastic bags are an environmental and economic threat,” said Sarah Sikich, coastal resources director for Heal the Bay. “We hope this decision catalyzes the state of California and the rest of the nation to take action.”
The last assessment by state department CalRecycle estimated that 14 billion plastic bags are used annually in California. It placed the statewide recycling rate for plastic bags at 3 percent, or about 1,500 tons of plastic bags diverted from landfills. But an estimate by Hilex Poly that 1,000 plastic bags weigh 13 pounds suggests 230.7 million bags were recycled for a rate of just under 1.65 percent.
Daniels also argued that plastics bags' reuse by consumers contributes to a low recycling rate.
“Quite honestly, we are going to continue to try to educate city council members about some facts they are obviously ignoring,” he said, referring to the LA bag-ban initiative. “We are going to try to continue to educate them on the facts — not the ideology.