When California suspended its plastic bag ban in late April, recyclers say they took an unexpected hit — the state's market for recycled plastic pellets used in shopping bags basically evaporated.
California and other states suspended their bag bans in recent months to try to protect grocery workers from coronavirus exposure through reusable bags.
But the Golden State's bag ban also has a unique side provision that mandates that the thicker reusable plastic bags that were still allowed in stores had to be made with 40 percent recycled plastic.
Recyclers say without the law in force, demand for recycled resin there plummeted, hurting an already fragile market.
"What we saw … was at least five companies immediately saw all their orders for recycled content evaporate overnight," said Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
As a result, APR is asking California Gov. Gavin Newsom not to renew his bag ban suspension order and reinstate the recycled content mandate when it expires June 21. But other recycling executives expect that Newsom will continue the policy while the COVID-19 situation remains uncertain.
Sunil Bagaria, president of GDB International in New Brunswick, N.J., which sells recycled low density polyethylene into California's bag market, said he understands the business reasons the bag industry would shift away from recycled content in a crisis like COVID-19.
Virgin PE is inexpensive, especially as COVID-19 has slowed the economy, and it's more standardized and easier to process than the variances that come with recycled resin, he said.
But the abrupt move away from recycled content shows how fragile that market is, he contends, without laws or firm commitments from big brand companies to back it up.
"If there was no legislation, then we would be screwed," said Bagaria, who is also president of the plastics division at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. in Washington. "We're selling our recycled resin to bag manufacturers. The moment that law was put on hold, every single manufacturer, every single manufacturer of plastic bags, immediately switched to virgin resin."
California's law meant that recyclers were getting the best prices for their materials in the state, he said: "It was a big demand driver for companies like us."