Enviros see 2010 as the year of paper vs. plastic

For environmentalists and their allies, 2010 is shaping up as a landmark year in the Capitol over two major issues: renewable energy and plastic bag pollution.  A confluence of political factors – shaped in part by the governor’s desire for a positive legacy – is emerging in the final months of the legislative session.

Negotiations over a dramatic expansion in the utilities’ use of renewable energy already are bearing fruit.

And now agreement on a second major issue that has bedeviled environmentalists in the state for years, plastic bag pollution, also is looming.

“This one is coming together,” said recycling advocate Mark Murray of Californians Against Waste. Others agree, although fierce opposition remains from the plastic bag industry. “This year, the stars are aligned,” says Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, who is carrying the lead bill to ban the single-use bags statewide in food stores.

 Single-use plastic bags, popular in grocery and department stores, clog street drains, foul coastal waters, blow across the landscape like tumbleweed and wind up in the stomachs of wildlife, environmentalists contend. Once viewed as an acceptable alternative to paper bags, the sturdy, easily compressible plastic bags now are seen as a major environmental hazard. About 80 percent of the ubiquitous plastic bags are used in grocery stores and mini-marts. Estimates vary dramatically, but perhaps 20 billion a year are used in California and only 5 percent are recycled. Most wind up in landfills and may take decades to decay, but some – 3 percent by one estimate – get shunted into the litter stream. Statewide, cleanup costs about $300 million a year, according to a legislative analysis.

The plastic bag industry questions the basic assumptions, contending that a widely cited Canadian study detailing plastic pollution in ocean waters dealt with lines and nets, not bags, and that environmentalists simply ignore the evidence and use the issue to mount aggressive fund-raising efforts.

“In my opinion, this is a good idea gone wrong. We need to get beyond sound bites and symbolism. This legislation is being done because to a vocal minority the plastic bag has become a symbol,” said Peter Grande, the president of Command Packaging, a Los Angeles company that manufactures plastic bags. “They have fixated on water and pollution and they have taken a whole lot of information out of context.”

Several cities have approved cutting or banning the bags’ use, with exceptions. The first was San Francisco, which banned them from large grocery stores in 2007. Malibu, Palo Alto and Fairfax also have bans. Several other communities sought bans or restrictions, but the local ordinances withered before rules requiring environmental review and certification, and the issue is before the state Supreme Court. According to Plastics News, a dozen cities across the country have plastic bag bans.

The state has bag-recycling and waste-diversion programs, but efforts to ban the bags statewide have failed in the past, in part because of opposition from business interests and the plastic bag industry.

But this year, things are different. California may be the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags at food stores, pushed by an unlikely array of supporters. “There’s an unholy alliance,” as one Capitol staffer put it, representing the culmination of numerous earlier bills.

“Cities are moving toward creating their own ordinances,” said Brownley, who has tried before to ban plastic bags. “Particularly, for the grocers, they saw this happening and they decided this was an issue they wanted to be out in front of. It was quite clear to me that a bill like this wasn’t going to move forward until we had a broad-based coalition.”

So far, at least, the governor, environmentalists, grocers, recyclers, food workers and cities, among others, generally are on board Brownley’s AB 1998.

The rival interests are rarely on the same side of legislation and all have concerns about Brownley’s latest bill. But so far they are holding together. Her measure has enjoyed support in the Assembly but faces some change in the Senate, although the betting now in the Capitol is that in the end it will emerge from the Legislature in some form and get sent to the governor’s desk.

Negotiations over a plastic bag ban actually predate AB 1998, triggered by the governor’s public statements months ago  that he would support a ban. Grocers, sensing that momentum was building for dozens of local bans that could be written in such a way that they would pass legal muster, also were supportive. Retailers, too, because the writing was on the wall that local governments might prevail in the courts. Environmentalists also liked the measure. “It (the bill) is a very creative solution,” Murray noted.

Brownley’s bill would ban plastic bags from grocery stores, so-called “superstores” and minimarts. Stores could continue to provide paper bags, but these bags would have to be made from 40 percent recycled “post consumer” material – material that has been used at least once in the marketplace. Shoppers who opt to use the paper bags would be charged a minimum, 5-cent fee per bag. Stores would be prevented from handing out free paper bags. If it is approved, the law would take effect in January 2012.

Forestry interests don’t like the bill because the 40-percent “post consumer” provision limits their ability to use wood scraps in their mills to make the bags and Grande believes the bill will cost thousands of jobs and aggravate greenhouse gas pollution. Supporters of AB 1998 note that the 40-percent threshold already is the law and that at least one major bag manufacturer, Duro, backs the bill.

The plastics industry, led by the  American Chemistry Council, which represents 140 companies, also is opposed to AB 1998. The Council maintains an active lobbying presence in Sacramento – it averages about $80,000 per quarter in payments, according to financial disclosure records. Last year, it backed a plastic bag recycling bill, AB 1141 by Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, that was stalled. The Council was the sole major supporter of the bill, which would have limited locals’ rights to pursue bag bans and favored recycling over elimination.

“The last thing Californians need is something that acts just like a $1 billion tax added to their grocery bills. But that’s what this legislation does,” Tim Shestek, the Council’s Sacramento-based advocate, said in a prepared statement. “It was only a short four years ago that the legislature voted for a statewide plastic bag recycling infrastructure,” Shestek said. “AB 1998 would cripple these programs and actually result in more waste going to landfills.”

There are other issues as well. The League of California Cities traditionally does not support bills that contain local pre-emptions, although it has looked favorably on AB 1998. A provision of AB 1998 would repeal earlier legislation requiring stores to take back plastic bags for recycling, which has raised the League’s concerns. “This is an important provision of law because it provided collection of both single-use bags banned under AB 1998, but also any other bags consumers brought back,” according to a League analysis. The League also wonders whether the bill would bar cities from pursuing their own, tougher bans if they wish to. The League’s board is scheduled to meet next month to consider the issues.

For  environmentalists, the issue is clear cut. Plastic bags pollute the landscape and should be eliminated, and
Brownley says AB 1998 is a first step. “I don’t see the necessity of it when there are other options,” she said.

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