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California investigates 'recyclable' plastic bags

Tuesday, 03/01/2023

The majority of grocery businesses have switched to thicker, reusable plastic bags that are supposed to be recyclable since California passed the nation's first ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in 2014. However, whether the bags are actually recyclable as required by law is currently being investigated by Attorney General Rob Bonta.

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“We’ve all been to the store and forgotten to bring our reusable bags,” Bonta said recently. “At least the plastic bags we buy at the register for 10 cents have those ‘chasing arrows’ that say they are 100% recyclable, right? Perhaps wrong.”

In addition to threatening legal action that may result in a temporary ban on the bags or fines of millions of dollars, he demanded proof from six bag makers that the bags could really be recycled.

Trying to invoke an ongoing inquiry, his administration declined to say last week how many of the corporations answered. Manufacturers disagree with Bonta's description, according to the American Chemistry Council, a group representing the plastics industry. Single-use plastic bag bans have been implemented in many states after California, including New York, New Jersey, and Oregon. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, outside of California, only a small number of states have laws requiring retailers to accept back plastic bags for recycling; Maine was the first state to do so in 1991.

Only 6% of plastics are reportedly recycled in the US, with the remainder being burned, discarded, or dumped in the environment. Compared to 2018, more plastic bags were dumped in landfills in California in 2021, according to the state's recycling department.

Californians Against Waste Executive Director Mark Murray in part blames pandemic policies. Grocery stores and other retailers should allow customers to return their plastic bags. In the early stages of the pandemic, however, many people removed their bag recycling bins out of concern for contamination.

For the system to work, retailers must collect the bags and sell them back to manufacturers for use in making new bags that must include 40% recycled content and be reusable at least 125 times. Murray suspects that most are reused once.

“That’s not meeting the standard and it may be time to phase these bags out,” he said.

The California Retailers Association declined comment because it said each retailer has its own policy, and the California Grocers Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Currently, manufacturers of the bags have the option of self-certifying to the state that their bags are recyclable. However, according to Bonta, there is currently no complete infrastructure in place to collect, handle, and sell discarded bags. According to him, placing the bags in the majority of curbside recycling bins hinders the recycling of other products by blocking machinery and raising the possibility of worker damage.

Plastic bags and similar products are “a top form of contamination in curbside recycling bins,” California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling wrote in a 2021 report.

Bonta asked six manufacturers — Novolex, Revolution, Inteplast, Advance Polybag, Metro Polybag and Papier-Mettler — to prove their bags can be recycled in California. His office hasn’t said if they all responded, citing an “active and ongoing investigation.”

Revolution Chief Executive Sean Whiteley said the company has been recycling more than 300 million pounds of plastic material annually for decades and is “confident in our own sustainability and compliance record.”

He noted lawmakers publicly introduced the single-use bag ban legislation in 2014 at one of the company’s Southern California subsidiaries.

“At our core, we are an environmental recycling company that also makes sustainable plastic solutions,” he said in a statement.

Novolex said it is “committed to complying with all state laws and regulations.” The company responded to Bonta’s request but declined to share its full response with The Associated Press, a spokesman said.

Novolex’s bags have been certified as eligible for recycling by an independent laboratory and, therefore, must be marked that way, the company said in a statement.

The other four companies did not respond to multiple emailed requests.

Manufacturers are “aggressively working so that all plastic packaging that is manufactured is remade into new plastics,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council.

It's not the first time Bonta and business have disagreed over plastics. ExxonMobil was subpoenaed earlier this year as part of what he called a pioneering, more comprehensive probe of the petroleum business and the rise of plastic waste.


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