As lawmakers look into banning plastic grocery bags in Los Angeles, local bag manufacturers are preparing to fight back against a proposal they believe is unfair and misguided.
The businesses contend the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' decision this month to study how to lessen the environmental impact of plastic bags including the possibility of mandating a switch to more expensive compostable bags would do little to solve litter and disposal problems.
"It's a tax on business which will be passed on to consumers, but it doesn't clean up the environment," said Pete Grande, president of Los Angeles-based Command Packaging, a plastic bag manufacturer. "Ultimately, it doesn't solve anything."
The board acted after San Francisco lawmakers in March voted to ban non-biodegradable plastic grocery bags, becoming the first city in the country to prohibit the bags, which have largely displaced paper sacks in most grocery stores.
The study should be completed in the next 45 days. Among the options expected to be reviewed: requiring grocers to switch to compostable bags made of corn or potato starch, allowing continued use of the bags but sharply increasing recycling programs and levying a tax on bags given to consumers.
Environmental groups across the county championed the moves, but a number of bag makers believe the proposal, which has gained support on principle, is deeply flawed in practice. For example, they say, what's becoming a popular notion replacing plastic bags with compostable bags made of corn starch may seem appealing. But those bags can't be thrown on the backyard compost pile; they require special handling at professionally operated composting facilities, of which there are few.
Still, county supervisors seem determined to make some headway with the issue, especially given that the bags are cited as a prime source of litter on land and in waterways, where they can kill water fowl and other animals that get caught in them or try to eat them.
California supermarkets use more than 11 billion plastic bags every year, but only about 5 percent of these bags are recycled, according to Californians Against Waste, a non-profit environmental advocacy group.
That kind of use has made the bags the leading cause of trash in the state, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board but also tricky to replace.
"We're not sure that you could ever put together a (complete) ban," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who said she hopes to meet with plastic bag manufacturers to get their thoughts on the issue. "We're looking at alternatives."
At the root of the county's move are the makings of a revolution against the plastic bag. After San Francisco passed its ban in March, cities across the state and country are now considering similar bans.
In California alone, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo have each floated plans. And officials in New York, Phoenix and Portland, Ore., are looking at similar proposals.
Still more cities are considering measures short of an outright ban. Legislators in Juneau, Alaska, for example, have introduced a bill to impose a 15 cent tax on each plastic bag to discourage their use.
Businesses, too, are moving away from plastic. Ikea International, the Swedish retail chain, announced last month that it would begin charging for plastic bags to discourage waste. Whole Foods Market Inc. of Austin, Texas, meanwhile, takes the opposite tack: the grocery chain credits customers 5 cents for bringing their own bag.
And plastic bags have been virtually unavailable at Trader Joe's grocery stores for years, though some stores do offer them. The Monrovia-based grocery chain also sells three types of reusable bags and plans to begin selling two new types of reusable bags.
However, the grocery industry in general has not favored a ban. The California Grocers Association, like bag manufacturers, tout recycling programs as a more effective approach than banning non-biodegradable ones.
Those efforts will get a boost on July 1 when a bill the state Legislature passed last year and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger goes into effect; it will require all California grocery stores to have bins for plastic recycling.
Cost is an issue. Traditional plastic bags cost grocers about a penny each, while paper bags can cost 5-10 cents. Compostable plastic bags, meanwhile, can cost anywhere from about a nickel to upwards of 30 cents each.
"We don't think it's going to be a very effective plan as far as the end goal of reducing the number of bags in the waste stream," said Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the grocers association. "We think this will ultimately frustrate the recycling efforts underway."
Grocers contend that compostable plastic-like bags would confuse most consumers, who would mix them up with plastics destined for recycling, contaminating the recycling stream. And like manufacturers they say there are not enough compost facilities to recycle the bags something environmentalists acknowledge, though they contend that is not reason enough to not take steps to start eliminating plastic bags.
Indeed, the science of composting plastic gets a bit tricky. The American Society for Testing & Materials standards for compostable plastic bags require that they biodegrade, disintegrate completely and do not leave toxic residue.
Biodegradability means that the bags degrade from naturally occurring microorganisms at a rate of at least 60 percent within 180 days. Some bags, though, are merely degradable and require some artificial ingredient to cause the degradation.
Nicholas Lorell, recycling coordinator for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, an independent countywide agency, said there are some small composting facilities around the Los Angeles area that could handle the bags, but the county would face some serious obstacles if it wants to mandate plastic bag composting.
Traditional plastic bags would have to be separated out from the compostable bags, which would be costly and inefficient, he said. And getting people to put plastic in with their other compostable materials could be a challenge.
"They've tried to train people for years not to put plastic in with their green waste," Lorell said.
And though the bags could be broken down in a backyard heap, Lorell said it would take an experienced composter to do so because the bags have specific composting requirements, including the need to be turned regularly so they are exposed to oxygen.
Meanwhile, manufacturers are taking aim at another popular notion that a traditional paper bag would be better than plastic.
Julien Kawasaki, marketing director for Command Packaging, which is helping lead opposition to any proposed ban, said plastic bag manufacturers will point out that there are hidden costs in switching to paper bags that aren't being considered.
Among the figures she cites, it takes four times as much energy to produce paper bags as it does to make plastic bags, and plastic generates 80 percent less waste than paper.
"Paper manufacturing facilitates smokestacks, logging trucks and clearcutting forests," Kawasaki said. "People think paper is better, but if it's all going to the landfill, it doesn't make a difference."
Grande, who is also president of the California Film Extruders and Converters Association, said his group is preparing a proposal to be presented to the board of supervisors that will present an alternative rooted in recycling programs.
"We've got to really ramp up our recycling infrastructure. We've got to give consumers the opportunity, the education and the ability to recycle bags easily," he said. "We obviously need to be part of the solution because we're making the products and we have a lot to lose."
Indeed, Rick Zirkler, executive vice president of another Los Angeles plastic bag maker, HPC Industries Inc., said that he worries the general public will get caught up in emotional arguments prompting the Board of Supervisors to make bad public policy.
"I think the environmentalists have taken this issue because it's a good rally point for them, but the solution won't solve anything," Zirkler said. "People are going for buzz words."
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