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SJ Plastic Bag Ban Stirs More Cities to Follow Suit

A cashier bags groceries in plastic bags at Nijiya Market June 2, 2010 in San Francisco
A cashier bags groceries in plastic bags at Nijiya Market June 2, 2010 in San Francisco
The American Chemistry Council calls ban "unwise and unworkable" and prepares for a fight

In Santa Clara County, plastic-bag industry representatives have a real fight on their hands.

The county’s largest city, San Jose, passed a ban on single-use plastic bags with an overwhelming majority last week, and that is emboldening smaller cities to follow suit.

But the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic-bag makers, issued a statement describing the decision as “unwise and unworkable” and is preparing for a fight.

Tim Shestak, senior director of state affairs for the council, said efforts to promote plastic recycling fell on deaf ears in San Jose. “It was a politically challenging environment,” he admitted.

Shestak, who lobbies in Sacramento on behalf of the council’s member companies, Dow Chemical Company and DuPont, said: “We spent a fair amount of time trying to talk to officials on the city council about alternative approaches.”

Palo Alto city councilor Patrick Burt, who sits on the California Protection Agency Pollution Prevention Task Force, said lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council first approached the city in 2009 and said they were concerned that plastic-bag bans would gain momentum. “Once a city like ours adopted” a ban “then it would begin a process where a bunch of cities would adopt one.”

Palo Alto was the region’s first city to propose a prohibition on plastic bags, in 2009. The city finally settled on only a partial ban after a coalition representing plastic-bag manufacturers, SavethePlasticBag.com, threatened to sue because the city did not issue an environmental impact report.

In the coming months, Palo Alto will propose an expansion of the partial ban.

Burt said Palo Alto had opted “by design” to hold off on a full ban until it could access information from San Jose’s environmental impact report, which was completed last October.

The city will use findings from this report to provide the legal basis for a full ban. “We are grateful to rely on San Jose’s work,” said Councilor Burt. With that in hand, the cost of producing a location-specific report will be “thousands instead of tens of thousands.”

Neighboring Sunnyvale has set aside $100,000 for its environmental impact report. It plans to propose a plastic-bag ordinance in the second half of this year.

The chemistry council, which is based in Washington D.C., has been forced to pay increasing attention to smaller cities. “Where these ordinances popped up,” Shestak said, “we will be as engaged as we can be.”

Kirsten James, a spokesperson from Heal the Bay, an environmental group based in Santa Monica, said the council and SavethePlasticBag.com, led by former Washington lobbyist Stephen Joseph, are funded by the plastic-bag industry. “They share a lot of members,” she added.

When asked about this, Tim Shestak issued a strong denial and said he considered the question “inappropriate and completely off-base.”

Informed of the council’s response, James withdrew her previous claim. Heal the Bay had conducted research but remained “unclear” whether the two organizations are actually affiliated. “Both of the groups are opposed to any plastic bag policies,” she admitted, “even if they don’t share the same funding.”

When asked about the council’s reaction to Palo Alto’s adoption of San Jose’s environmental impact report, Wilson responded: “We cannot foretell how we will react to something that has not happened.”

The American Chemistry Council strongly advocates recycling as an alternative to plastic-bag prohibitions. Shestak, an American Chemistry Council employee since 1994, spoke at length about a proposal “to ensure that material we collect has an end use.”

The council says their member companies want to be part of the solution. Shestak argues that a consumer and business-friendly approach is to invigorate plastic bag recycling through a fully funded public-education program. In official statements to the press, the council praises retailers, including Wal-Mart and Target, which offer recycling bins. But recycling is voluntary, and only a tiny percentage of customers leave their plastic bags in the bins.

Councilor Burt finds the council’s argument that recycling is the answer unconvincing. “Plastic bags don’t end up in the landfill; they blow away – millions of them enter into our water ways and create big problems,” he said.

James, Heal the Bay’s director of water quality, concurs. She said the council’s recycling initiatives are not preserving marine life because millions of plastic bags are blowing into the bay. “When you are dealing with 19 billion plastic bags, recycling less than 5% of them is not going to solve the problem.”

John Pilger, communications officer for the City of Sunnyvale, said the recycling equipment Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Mountain View use at the Sunnyvale Materials and Recovery station cannot effectively recycle single-use plastic bags.

“They are lightweight, difficult to handle and can jam equipment,” he said, adding that the company that reuses the plastic will not take the bags if there are traces of food waste.

Shestak believes environmental groups have misrepresented the extent of the problem. “I think the recycling rate is more like 13 percent,” he said.

A strong point of contention between the opposing groups is Measure AB 1998, a bill that Heal the Bay sponsored. If it had passed, California would have become the first state to ban plastic bags in supermarkets and convenience stores. In September, the Senate narrowly defeated the bill.

With high-profile support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kirsten James said he blames the “deep pockets of the American Chemistry Council” for the bill’s failure.

“The ACC spent a lot of money opposing this bill, and we were only a grass roots organization,” she said. “It’s hard to compete with the big money.”

Shestak retaliated with the claim that the money had been spent to raise public awareness of a bill that “not many people knew about outside of environmental groups.”

In his view, AB 1998 was defeated because Californians realized that it was “bad for the environment and the economy. If the measure had passed, 100 manufacturing jobs would be at risk. With unemployment at a record high, “the legislature should not pass laws putting more people out of work.”

The state narrowly avoided a “potential catastrophe,” he added.

Shestak is ready to defend the council’s actions to the supporters of Measure AB 1998. “If Heal the Bay wants to have a discussion, we are ready,” he said. “But frankly they don’t.”

Heal the Bay said they do not see a point in future conversation. “I really don’t see much place for common ground right now,” said James.

Now, the council intends to wage a grass-roots campaign to oppose plastic bag ordinances in smaller cities.

“We want to work with those folks that are negatively affected by this,” he said, including “neighborhood market associations, convenience stores and downstream consumer groups” as potential allies.

John Pilger, city of Sunnyvale spokesperson, said plastic-bag bans are now the issue of the moment. “You can see it in any number of cities throughout the region from San Francisco to San Jose,” he said. For plastic bags, “the time has come.”

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