The plastics manufacturing industry and environmental activists don’t want plastic bags to go to waste, but they disagree on the steps necessary to ensure that the material doesn’t end up in landfills or the ocean after one use.
California is the only state with a single-use plastic bag ban, but others are likely to introduce or discuss legislation this year. In December, Boston became the 60th municipality in Massachusetts to impose a plastic bag ban, and lawmakers are pushing a bill in the state Legislature for a statewide ban.
The U.K. recently unveiled a 25-year plan to eliminate avoidable waste, including proposals for taxes and funding for sustainable alternatives, Prime Minister Theresa May said in a speech Jan. 11. The European Union plans to propose a tax on plastic bags and packaging, and as of Jan. 1, China stopped accepting imported plastic waste for reprocessing.
Plastic pollution is a risk to the marine environment and to human health. Plastic, which is made with petroleum and isn’t biodegradable, often ends up in oceans and bodies of water, and could have health implications for humans who eat fish that ingest small pieces of the material.
“We are turning our water bodies into unpermitted landfills,” Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, told Bloomberg Environment.
Bag legislation supporters say that local and state bag laws are the first step in a comprehensive plan to eliminate plastic pollution, while plastic manufacturers say a patchwork of policies across the country is harmful to customers and manufacturers.
Solid waste and recycling policy has historically been left to the states. Grass-roots initiatives for plastic bag laws began because people didn’t like seeing trashed plastic bags in trees, rivers, and oceans, in addition to the public-health implications, Mark Murray, executive director of the environmental advocacy organization Californians Against Waste, told Bloomberg Environment.
California’s model, which bans grocery stores, pharmacies, and convenience stores from supplying single-use plastic bags and charges customers 10 cents for reusable or recycled paper bags, is “certainly scalable,” Murray said.
Other states—including Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington—will likely introduce some form of legislation this year, he said. Hundreds of communities have already adopted bag bans and fees. The Hawaiian Islands have a combination of bans and fees, but no statewide legislation.
In California, 150 jurisdictions adopted almost identical ordinances ahead of the statewide ban going into effect in 2016. Murray’s organization played a role in drafting the local ordinances, which served as the basis for the state legislation.
A model that combines a ban and fee for bags is the most likely approach to withstand industry’s legal challenges, Jennie Romer, an attorney and sustainability consultant, told Bloomberg Environment. Romer consulted on the plastic bag legislation in San Francisco and New York.
The hybrid ban-and-fee plan usually eliminates thin plastic bags and charges customers for reusable bags, she said. Another viable model, like the one used in Washington, D.C., charges a few cents per bag.
“Even 5 cents makes a difference,” Romer said. Fees, however small, usually force people to think at the register if they want to pay for the bag, she said.
Immediately after San Francisco and nearby communities implemented a paper bag charge, about 40 percent of people walked out of the store with no bag at all if only carrying a few items compared to fewer than 15 percent leaving without a bag before the charge went into effect, Murray said.
The reusable bag charge component also helped raise grocer support, because revenue from bag sales reduced overhead costs for bags that stores weren’t being compensated for, he said.
Industry Backs Consistent Policy
“Policies pertaining to auxiliary containers should be consistent within a state,” Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, told Bloomberg Environment. “It’s harmful to customers, manufacturers, broader economic health, and American jobs to have a patchwork of rules and regulations.”
The alliance represents plastic bag manufacturers, and lobbies against bag bans and fees. Auxiliary containers are used to carry merchandise, food, and beverages, and aren’t limited to bags.
About 24,600 people are employed by the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry in 344 plants across the country, according to Bag the Ban, a project created by plastic manufacturing company Novolex in response to proposed bag legislation.
The Plastics Industry Association, which represents the entire plastics industry supply chain, referred requests for comment to APBA.
The alliance raised $6.1 million to defeat Proposition 67, the measure on California’s 2016 ballot about the single-use plastic bag ban.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a measure last February to preempt a New York City law that would have imposed a 5-cent fee on plastic bags. Other states—including Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin—also have passed preemption laws.
The U.S. needs “a more comprehensive approach for phasing out the huge volume of single-use plastic products and packaging that we use every day,” Murray said. “The Europeans are trying to tackle this in a big, comprehensive way, and so far, we failed to do that in the United States. We failed to do that even in California,” he said.
Plastic reduction strategies will likely be left up to the states, because even if there were a receptive federal administration, the issue is “too politically dicey for the federal government to handle,” Enck said.
Without a comprehensive strategy including all plastic products, it will only be possible to pick off the “low hanging plastic fruit,” she said.
Members of the plastic manufacturing industry have supported plastic-bag recycling programs instead of legislation to ban or charge for the products.
Novolex, the plastic packaging manufacturer, calls for more recycling and reuse “without banning products or taxing families,” according to Bag the Ban. “Misguided bans and taxes on plastic bags could weigh down the economy, increase costs for consumers and small business, and leave a larger carbon footprint on the environment than alternatives,” the project’s website says.
The company didn’t respond to Bloomberg Environment’s request for comment.