Sonoma, Calif. — As pushes to tax, regulate or ban single-use plastics sweep the country, concerned processors and retailers can take valuable lessons from California's experience.
That was the message of Bruce Magnani, vice president of Sacramento consultancy Houston Magnani & Associates at the annual conference of the Western Plastics Association in late May.
Once at loggerheads, Golden State plastics groups and environmentalists have increasingly worked together to focus on practical results, Magnani said.
"Over time, this dialogue has gone in a very positive direction," Magnani told 50 conference attendees in rustic Sonoma.
Magnani highlighted SB 1355, signed into law last year with the backing of industry stalwarts WPA, the American Chemistry Council, the California Restaurant Association and the Plastics Industry Association.
The law mandates an ambitious goal — recyclable or compostable food-service wares in state-owned facilities — but leaves implementation details to those on the ground, Magnini said.
The national picture pained by American Progressive Bag Alliance is considerably darker.
"The fight is getting harder and harder," Executive Director Matt Seaholm said. "Our primary focus is defeating bans, taxes and fees across the country.
"Since the last election, we've seen a boldness of progressives in a number of states," he said.
Seaholm said activists are now focused on banning single-use bags rather than placing taxes or fees on them. Definitions of "reusable" mandate thickness or stitched handles, Seaholm said.
Brian Sernulka, director of government relations at the Falls Church, Va.-based Foodservice Packaging Institute, said energized legislators this year have introduced a tsunami of bills targeting single-use plastics: 384 bills in 45 states, by FPI's latest count.
In some states, legislators are introducing very similar bills. In New York, 10 bills targeting plastic bags have been introduced, Sernulka said.
Single-use bags are the biggest target of all this legislative activity. Vermont has joined the Empire State in banning the bags, while Maine, Vermont and Maryland have instituted polystyrene bans, FPI reports.
But some regulations are subtler. In Washington state, a new law bans labeling plastic items as biodegradable or compostable, the 86-year-old trade association reports.
Sernulka warned of a slippery legislative slope, "from bans to taxes to mandates that require you to have recycled content … eventually, laws requiring making all items reusable."
One South Carolina town targeted the plastic windows on doughnut boxes, Sernulka said.
Meanwhile, new state laws Oklahoma and North Dakota prohibit local governments from restricting or regulating plastic packaging. The Texas Supreme Court has upheld a similar law in the Lone Star State.
In Canada, municipalities stymied in their bids to pass sustainability legislation can still implement their goals via long-term strategic plans.
"If you have a powerful enough mayor or elected official, a strategic plan is as good as an actual ordinance," Sernulka said.
Lee Anderson, director of issues management & state government relations at Minneapolis-based General Mills Inc., said national brands must cope with a checkerboard of recycling regulations across the country.
"We have created so much confusion because [recycling] is so highly localized," Anderson said.
Consumers complained when a General Mills box showed plastic jars going into the recycling stream with their lids on — copacetic in some places, but a strict no-no in others.
General Mills has a goal of 100 percent recyclable packaging by 2030, up from 89 percent today, Anderson said.
WPA is a Sacramento-based trade group of processors, packagers, compounders, resin producers and recyclers.