INSIGHT: Plastic bag bans - the never-ending story

14 September 2010 12:33  [Source: ICIS news]

By David Barry

HOUSTON (ICIS)--In the waning hours of August, the US plastic bag industry and polyethylene (PE) resin manufacturers claimed an important legislative victory when the California senate voted down a proposal to ban single-use plastic carryout bags in the state.

California, the most populous state in the US, consumes 19bn plastic bags each year, according to estimates frequently cited in news reports.

It takes 1lb of polyethylene (PE) to manufacture around 67 bags, manufacturers say.

The bill was a significant test for the plastic bag manufacturers because it would have made California the first US state to ban plastic bags in grocery stores, pharmacies and other retail establishments.

A successful bag ban in California would provide momentum to supporters of similar measures in other states.

It was also significant in that the California Grocers Association (CGA), representing some 6,000 food stores across the state, chose to throw its weight in support of the ban, along with environmental groups and more than two dozen cities.

“Our goal as an industry is to shift consumer behaviour away from single use bags and to reusable bags,” said CGA spokesman Dave Heylen.

On the other side of the fence, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) argued, as it has in many previous bag ban fights, that the California bill would undermine nascent recycling programmes for plastic bags and film.

California grocers have been required to put recycling bins for plastic bags in front of their stores since 2007.

However, after an initial uptick in recycling, the CGA says a majority of its members have seen little to no increase in plastic bag recycling.

“The unfortunate reality is that recycling isn’t working in California,” CGA’s Heylen said.

Other state grocers continue to support voluntary recycling in lieu of mandatory bag bans or fees.

The Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association (PFMA) earlier this year responded to a proposed bag ban in Philadelphia by launching the largest voluntary recycling programme in the country, with 232 stores participating.

“Expanded recycling and public education efforts will alleviate the amount of plastic entering the waste stream and preserve the environment,” said PFMA chief executive David McCorkle.

The ACC’s own studies show that plastic film and bag recycling is still increasing, albeit at a slower rate.

The most recent data from 2008 shows 832m lb of postconsumer plastic film and bags were recycled in the US, up by 2m lb from the previous year.

Plastic grocery and retail bags made up 17% of the recycled plastic film and bags in 2008.

It remains to be seen whether this recycling number continues to go up. 2009 is likely to be another year of slow growth for recycling, because the weak economy helped drive down retail bag sales by double-digit percentages from a year earlier.

The economic downturn could make it harder for the plastics industry to argue that recycling efforts are succeeding.

However, continued improvement in recycling measures will be critical in persuading policy-makers and business groups to support voluntary environmental programs.

One thing is certain for plastic bag manufacturers. Supporters of a bag ban in California and in other states will not fade away.

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By: David Barry
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