Nipping It In the Bag

Local governments continue to address plastic bag concerns.

New york city and Los Angeles County, Calif., are the latest jurisdictions to pass legislation that seeks to remove more non-biodegradable plastic bags from the waste stream. The local governments join San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and Phoenix, which have passed similar legislation over the past year.

“I think you'll see a lot more of them,” says Chaz Miller, state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), referring to a growing trend of local governments passing plastic bag legislation.

But will they work? “It's going to depend partially on how seriously those two [jurisdictions] enforce the law and how willing people are to switch their habits for what they carry products in,” Miller says.

Litter remains one of the main reasons for the recent laws. “It's just a positive step toward raising public awareness and maximizing recycling success in the city, while probably balancing the concerns of the business community,” says Michael Bimonte, first deputy commissioner for the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY).

In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law the city's plastic bag recycling program, which requires stores with more than 5,000 square feet of retail space, or five or more store locations within the city, to provide a recycling container for their customers at the front of each store. The program also requires stores to sell reuseable cloth bags or more durable plastic bags that are at least 2.25 millimeters thick. Stores have six months to use their old stock of bags before the program will be enforced.

Bimonte says the program will not affect or alter DSNY collection routes, but will divert an estimated 90,000 tons of plastic bags from the city's waste stream each year. Stores must maintain records of the bags they collect and submit an annual report to the DSNY, which will analyze the results and submit a report to the mayor every two years.

The L.A. County legislation, which was passed by a unanimous vote by the county's Board of Supervisors last month, calls for a 30 percent reduction of single-use plastic bags at large supermarkets and retail stores by 2010 and a 65 percent reduction by 2013. If those benchmarks aren't met, a ban would be imposed. The law only applies to the unincorporated areas scattered throughout the county, representing roughly 10 percent of the county's population of 10 million. Officials say the law could be difficult to enforce since those affected by it are so spread out. According to the board, an immediate ban in the unincorporated areas would result in a patchwork of regulations that may confuse the public and limit it's effectiveness.

In April 2007, a reduction program was included in a proposed motion to the county's Board of Supervisors. The board then spent several months meeting with stakeholders, members of the environmental community, the public works department, and the grocery and plastic bag industries to establish a program. The board agreed on one of the recommended programs, but a last-minute amendment pushed by the grocery stores relaxed the benchmarks that were eventually passed.

“I was very disappointed to see introduced and approved at the grocery industry's behest a last-minute amendment that undermined much of that work,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the county's supervisors. “Personally, I would have preferred a complete ban; we didn't have the board support for that.”

The county board has maintained that it will push for the incorporated areas of the county to pass similar legislation. But, nothing is certain at this point. “I would like to see the county's 88 cities follow suit and adopt tough but workable programs covering the other 90 percent of our population, and we are actively pursuing that goal,” Yaroslavsky says.