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Recycle -- but don't tax -- plastic bags

It is no surprise that the organization representing makers of plastic grocery bags takes issue with your April 16 editorial urging the state to pass a new tax on bags. We simply believe that asking Sacramento to levy a draconian tax that amounts to about 1,250% of a plastic bag's value is out of line, and that all of us in California instead should focus on increasing plastic bag recycling.

Plastic bag makers don't begrudge the rapid rise of reusable grocery bags and have no objection to encouraging their use. Now that nearly every major retailer sells inexpensive reusable bags (some even give them away), consumers can bring their own instead of choosing them at checkout. We can live with that; it's their choice.

But many shoppers still value the utility of plastic bags, both at the store and at home. Some surveys show that about 90% of consumers reuse plastic grocery bags at home to pack their kids' lunches, line their trash cans or clean up after their dogs.

Any plastic bags that aren't reused at home can be returned to stores for recycling. A state law passed recently requires large grocers and retailers to offer recycling bins so we can bring back plastic grocery bags -- plus dry-cleaning film, this newspaper's delivery bag and plastic wraps from bread, paper towels and more -- to be recycled into other products. These products get another life as durable backyard decking, home building products, city park benches and new plastic bags.

Contrary to your editorial's assertion that the program is not working, curbside recycling of plastic bags in L.A. County alone grew 62% from 2007 to 2009, according to a report by Sonoma-based Moore Recycling Associates Inc. In a separate study to be published soon, Moore also found that nationwide bag recycling at stores and curbside together grew 28% from 2005 to 2008, and data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicate that the national recycling rate doubled during this period. That's a huge increase in a very short time period. As bag recycling increases, less of this valuable material goes into the landfills or ends up as litter.

Unfortunately, taxing plastic bags likely would result in the dismantling of most of this recycling infrastructure, as the proposed bill eliminates the requirement to offer recycling at stores. And even curbside programs such as L.A.'s that let people put their bags and wraps in other bags for recycling will find it more difficult.

Why pass a law encouraging plastic bag recycling and then dismantle the program when it starts to show success?

Furthermore, your editorial is simply wrong in contending that "paper doesn't present nearly the same environmental threat as plastic." Plastic bags require 70% less energy to manufacture, produce 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and create five times less waste than bulky paper bags.

Your editorial does, however, highlight an area on which everyone can agree: Plastics don't belong in our oceans. The question all of us -- beachgoers, boaters, business owners and public officials -- should ask ourselves is this: How do we keep litter out of our oceans in the first place?

Scientists, international organizations and activists have concluded that there is no single answer to marine litter. Most agree that holistic approaches including recycling, coupled with tough litter abatement laws, well-run municipal waste management systems and behavioral changes can help keep plastic bags (and other materials) out of our waste systems, off our beaches and out of our oceans.

As part of our efforts, we're working with California state parks, Caltrans, Keep California Beautiful and others to increase plastics recycling by placing nearly 700 recycling bins on California's beaches, throughout our cities and at rest stops. We have been encouraged by the response and the increase in recycling.

The challenging problem of litter (particularly marine litter) will not be solved by bumper sticker slogans and reflexive responses to complex problems, such as calling for new taxes. By working together to get serious about recycling and accountability for litter, we can reverse this preventable scourge on our streets, beaches and oceans.

Tim Shestek is director of state and local affairs for the American Chemistry Council.

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