Plastics industry introduces two weak alternatives

Two industry-written proposals have been introduced in the General Assembly in recent days. Their intent is to make it look like the industry is “doing something.” In fact, they will only encourage complacency and confuse people when stronger, more effective proposals are also achievable.

Late last week SB164 was introduced in the General Assembly. The Plastic Bag Recycling Act is a sort of extended producer responsibility (EPR) measure intended to appear as though the plastics industry is taking steps to become more sustainable.

EPR is in theory a good thing–you make something, you should be responsible for dealing with it at the end of its useful life, instead of leaving that to the general public (i.e., taxpayers) or simply abandoning it. European countries have strong EPR laws and their municipal waste volumes are quite low compared to ours in the U.S.

But weak EPR proposals can also hinder the success of real, viable, effective solutions, because it makes people think they are doing something, and resistant to doing more, when in fact nothing of substance changes.

And that is the case here. SB164 requires plastic bag manufacturers to register with the state, print their names on the bags they distribute to retailers in the state, and file reports about how many bags they sell and recycle. They are also required to educate the public about recycling.

How printing the manufacturer’s name on a bag reduces litter, I really can’t say.

Identical legislation was considered in Illinois last year but it failed to get out of committee.

We expect this to be cross-filed in the House shortly. Meanwhile we already have HB169, which requires stores to maintain recycling bins where customers can bring their bags back. In theory, this is fine–not all jurisdictions offer curbside recycling of plastic bags, and it discourages shoppers from just throwing them away. But retailers are already paying to have their trash taken away; adding recycling pickup adds cost. Small businesses will really feel that extra cost.

And while plastic bags are theoretically recyclable, even if every one of the 3 billion bags Marylanders use each year were turned in for recycling, the infrastructure just isn’t there to handle them all. More than 90% of them will be landfilled or incinerated–or lost to the breeze during transportation and become litter anyway. (See the EPA’s own data, fourth bullet under Just the Facts. That green box on the right side of the page might interest some of you as well.)

Thus we need to look at proposals that will target that “3 billion bags used” number. Reducing the amount of bags we use is the only way to truly reduce how much trash we produce, and how much litter blights our neighborhoods.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act will be introduced next week. Stay tuned.

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