I'm encouraged by a trend that we've noticed this year, with the plastics industry trying to move the fight over plastic bag bans and taxes from local cities and towns to the state level.
If you haven't noticed, it's worked like this: In several Republican-controlled state capitals this year, business-friendly legislators have introduced bills that take away municipalities' powers to tax or ban plastic bags.
It hasn't worked everywhere, but variations on the strategy found some success, at least, in Missouri, Arizona and Texas. Bills passed, and municipal efforts to ban or tax bags were either reversed or stopped in their tracks.
Why does it make sense? Because battling against bans and taxes on plastic bags in municipalities is a tough fight. I've compared it to the Whac-A-Mole game: proposals seem to pop up almost at random around the country — indeed, around the world — every day.
We don't write about every proposal. Frankly, they're not all newsworthy. If a city councilman in a small- or medium-sized city tells a local newspaper reporter about a proposal to ban plastic bags, but no one else supports the idea, it goes nowhere. That happens a lot.
But when a serious proposal surfaces, the plastics industry already faces an uphill struggle.
Typically some member of the public, or an environmental group, or an elementary school student, proposes a ban with a goal of reducing litter or marine debris. There's almost always a constituency ready to support the proposal, willing to testify about the drawbacks — real or perceived — of plastic bags.
But there's rarely a constituency in place on the other side of the issue.
So what happens? Plastic bag makers send in experts to try to inform the community about the advantages of plastic bags. Sometimes they get a fair hearing. But often they get painted as greedy out-of-state interests who are happy to kill sea turtles as long as they can preserve their business.
The plastic bag makers don't always lose these battles. In fact, you probably noticed that they recently rolled back a ban in Huntington Beach, Calif. But they don't always win, either.
What's behind the strategy?
So why shift the debate to the state legislatures?
The idea is that allowing municipalities to ban otherwise legal products, states are creating an atmosphere that's not friendly to business.
It's a little amusing to me to see Democrats arguing in favor of local control on this issue, and Republicans arguing for statewide action. I can imagine the roles being reversed if the question concerned school funding, or marriage rights.
But politicians have an amazing ability to argue either side of any issue, whatever suits them best on any given day. I suppose most of them learned that skill on their high school debate team.
I like the idea of moving the debate to the state level, and not because the plastics industry is more likely to win in that forum. I believe state legislators are more likely to weigh all the facts in the debate, and not make a decision based solely on emotion or misinformation.
In other words, if the plastics industry does have the facts on its side, there's a fair chance to win. And I believe that bans and taxes that encourage replacing plastic products with less-sustainable alternative materials have to be discouraged.
That doesn't mean I believe that all plastic products are OK, and nothing should be banned or regulated. Whoever had the idea to put plastic microbeads in face cleaners and toothpaste, for example, wasn't using good judgment. Really, it was a dumb idea.
Beware legislators bearing gifts
I do have one caveat about moving the bag ban debate to the state level. The higher you move up the legislative food chain, the more you're entering an arena where money, rather than reason, drives decisions.
We know how these things work. You ask a state legislator to introduce a bill that you favor, and you inevitably get a request for a campaign donation. (Sometimes the donation comes first — kind of makes you want to take a shower, right?)
Despite attempts to paint the plastics industry as a big political player (have you noticed how bag ban proponents in California call the industry “Big Plastic”), the reality is that the plastics industry is not a particularly large or successful player in the world of government lobbying. The chemical industry barely cracks the top 50 in most lists I've seen of most influential special interest groups.
Defending plastic bags in the state legislatures means committing to the treadmill of fundraising and donating to candidates — probably forever. Bag makers alone aren't going to want to carry that burden alone. At some point there's going to be pressure to get more companies involved and contributing cash to the effort.
That's not a particularly attractive scenario.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.