California is poised to ban single-use plastic bags. At this point Gov. Jerry Brown could still veto the bill, but that seems extremely unlikely.
Will a statewide bag ban have an impact on litter and marine debris? Yes, of course. Likely less than the public expects, but that really doesn't matter. Plastic bags are primarily a symbol of unnecessary waste, rather than being the root of the problem.
Meanwhile, there's another battle taking place on the East Coast, this time over plastic containers. In Massachusetts, voters are being asked to expand the state's deposit law to include bottled water and other non-carbonated beverages.
It's notable that both California and Massachusetts are home to sizeable plastics sectors. Not that the industry speaks with a single voice, but we can still take a look at what the issues mean to the plastics industry in both states.
A long battle in the Golden State
California is home base for grassroots efforts aimed at cleaning up the ocean and beaches. Activists wanted to do more than pick up trash — they wanted to ban something. Plastic bags are utilitarian but unloved products. Even when they were first introduced, they spawned a debate — paper or plastic? The public never liked plastics enough to put the issue to bed.
The plastics industry used a number of arguments to fight bans and taxes. The efforts were largely successful for a long time — so it's unfair to say that they followed the wrong strategy.
First, there were legal battles and threats of lawsuits. Then, during the Great Recession, it was particularly effective to argue that bans and taxes were job killers.
It's also probably true that alternatives are worse for the environment. But for too long the plastics industry reacted as if this was a paper vs. plastic debate. But that ended years ago. This debate was all about deciding between durable, reusable bags or single-use plastics. Indeed, paper bag makers opposed the California law too, since it places a 10-cent fee on their bags.
Another symbol in the Bay State
In Massachusetts, there's a political battle over another common plastic package that's become a symbol in the debate over litter and marine debris — water bottles.
On Nov. 4, voters will decide whether to expand the state's deposit program to include water bottles and other noncarbonated beverages.
The American Beverage Association is fighting hard against the issue, raising $5 million, which it's using on TV ads and to hire Goddard Gunster, a high-powered PR advocacy firm — the ones behind those “Harry & Louise” ads that helped to scuttle the Clinton health care plan in the 1990s.
So industry has money and muscle on its side in the Bay State. But I would argue that the plastics industry should stay away from this battle. Or, better yet, join the other side.
Expanding the state's 5-cent bottle redemption law to include water would be excellent for plastics recyclers. PET bottles have value and are prized by recycling companies. The U.S. plastics recycling rate is too low, and these definitely fit the definition of low-hanging fruit.
On top of that, remember that Concord, Mass., voters recently decided to outlaw single-use water bottles, in part because of their poor recycling record. Perhaps other communities won't follow in those footsteps. But there's reason to be proactive now and take steps to improve the sustainability record.