NASHVILLE, TENN. — When it comes to countering plastic bag bans and taxes, the best solution could be collaboration.
Thanks to work by industry groups, no legislature has succeeded in passing a statewide bag ban, said Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability and marketing for Hilex Poly Co. LLC in Hartsville, S.C., and a member of the American Progressive Bag Alliance.
Rozenski was one of three speakers talking sustainability in a panel at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Flexible Film and Bag Conference, held May 8-10 in Nashville.
The industry has had to work hard to counter myths and misperceptions about plastics, he said.
He relayed an experience from a bag-ban press conference. The event organizer, an active environmental group, fabricated information about plastics, according to Rozenski, like claiming that it takes more energy to manufacture a plastic bag than a paper one, and displayed large posters with pictures of littered streams. The streams were littered with tires, cans and other debris, but not plastic bags, he said.
"If they can't win, they're going to change the facts. That's been the biggest challenge we face," Rozenski said.
Industry opponents would rather appeal to emotion than facts, he said. "We're taking a different approach. We're getting out there and talking about the facts."
Some of those facts: Plastic bags are 100 recyclable; they're made from natural gas, not oil; they make up less than 1 percent of litter; and they have a smaller environmental footprint than alternatives.
Bags are also not single-use — about 60-75 percent of bags are reused, he said. And when bags are recycled, they're made into lots of products like new plastic bags made by Hilex, or the boardwalks being built with Trex Co. Inc.'s wood-alternative to replace ones destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, said Rozenski.
Increasing the recovery of PE film is important to boosting sustainability and customer acceptance; the future of PE film packaging depends on increased recycling, said Dave Heglas, material resources director for Trex Co., in his presentation on the American Chemistry Council's Film Recycling Group,
"In order for recycling to be truly sustainable, we need more end users" like Hilex and Winchester, Va.-based Trex, he said, in response to an audience question.
He added that the industry needs to continue educating people on what plastics to recycle and how to collect them.
The entire industry should feel responsible for correcting myths and helping people understand sustainability, Rozenski agreed.
Rozenski encouraged manufacturers to show pictures of employees on their website, instead of just machinery or products, to give the industry a face.
It's easy to ban machines and bags, he said, but the plastic bag industry employs more than 30,000 people directly, and the public needs to understand that.
It's not just bags, he said. "It's people. It's a community. There's a lot of impact."
Bag bans impact the entire industry, from resin suppliers to equipment manufac¬turers, he said. "This is not a plastic bag issue, it's a plastics issue."
He added that if environmental groups aren't able to pass bag bans, they will be likely to move on to another segment of plastics.
Rozenski encouraged audience members to make sure they have a voice in the debate, by joining trade organizations and having a strategy for engagement.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance has been successful in communicating with the media, he said. Three years ago, news stories about bag bans were one-sided and full of misinformation, according to Rozenski, so the American Progressive Bag Alliance offered to be a resource. Now stories are more balanced and cover both sides of the debate, he said. The organization is making sure that the media know the facts, he said.
"Activists will say things, but they won't be held accountable," he said.
"You've got to get out there and stop people from hijacking science."
The organization also has a website, bagtheban.com, and interacts with the public on Facebook and Twitter. The group is focused on countering myths and "junk science" while promoting recycling as the best solution to litter, Rozenski said.
"People at a grass-roots level are picking up this message," he said. "Especially that we are active in their communities as employers, that it benefits them."
If a bag ban or tax is proposed in the area, companies should ask their employees to write a letter or become involved in the debate. Even small bans deserve the industry's attention, he said.
"If you leave a vacuum or a hole in the facts, they will write in whatever they want. If the bill's there and you don't get engaged, they get to write the story they want," Rozenski said.
When legislators hear the facts about plastic bags, it makes a difference, he said.
APBA and other organizations have been successful in opposing bans and taxes, according to Rozenski, despite perceptions to the contrary. Most of the cities that are banning bags are centered near Los Angeles or San Francisco, he said.
He noted recent successes in Oregon, California, Virginia, Maryland and Washington state.