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Plastic bag makers fight back

I expect they will be busy during the legislative session working to block municipal laws that tax, limit, or ban single-use plastic bags.


For years, Superbag in northwest Houston quietly manufactured the sacks that grocers and retail chains hand out to customers in the checkout line. The business garnered little attention.

Now, however, the industry that for years promoted the theme “Plastics make it possible” feels under attack, forced to justify a product that opponents have made a symbol for litter and waste.

After dozens of cities enacted bans, California in September became the first state to prohibit stores from handing out single-use plastic bags to customers, requiring them instead to purchase reusable bags or pay at least 10 cents for a paper bag or thicker plastic sack.

“Now, it’s ‘Oh, you’re the bad guy,’‚ÄČ” said [Laura] Ledbetter, who oversees sales and project management at Superbag, one of Houston’s largest plastic bag manufacturers. “I feel like I’m constantly trying to educate people, and it’s sad that someone along the way taught people the wrong thing.”

The industry is starting to fight back. Led by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, bag manufacturers launched a campaign in California to collect enough signatures on a petition to force the ban to a statewide referendum.

“We are vigorously going to defend these high-paying manufacturing jobs, especially when the reasons for these plastic bag bans are based on a lot of mythology,” said Mark Daniels, alliance chairman and senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy at Novolex, the largest paper and plastic bag manufacturer in North America. It has three plants in North Texas.

The alliance has until Dec. 30 to gather signatures from about half a million people – 5 percent of the state’s registered voters.


Proponents of bag bans say plastic bags trash the environment, pose threats to wildlife and cost municipalities millions to clean up. They argue that the country is better off if bag manufacturing jobs get replaced.

“We’re trying to create a new economy,” said Stephanie Barger, founder and executive director of Earth Resource Foundation, which helped push for the California ban.

If bans threaten companies’ business, they still have other opportunities to sell cleaner, more durable containers, like reusable sacks, said Jennie R. Romer, attorney and founder of She counsels cities on the best ways to pass bans and avoid litigation.

“People are going to have to put their products in something,” she said.

The California ban won’t shut down machines hundreds of miles away in Texas, where only a handful of cities including Austin, Laredo and South Padre Island have bans. Starting Jan. 1, Dallas will require retailers to collect an environmental fee of 5 cents for every paper and plastic sack customers use.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the state’s governor-elect, in August issued an opinion that suggested bans initiated for managing solid wastes may violate the state’s health and safety code, a ruling that could have a chilling effect on cities eyeing similar action.

But the state’s manufacturers are worried anyway.


“The more plastic stuff is banned, the more the industry is going to struggle and go away,” said Ken Holmes of American Plastic Manufacturing, a small bag manufacturer in Seattle. “And plastics are a good thing. We can’t have big-screen TVs, we can’t have computers, we can’t have toys. We can’t have a lot of stuff without plastic.”

But environmentalists say that as consumption runs rampant and landfills fill with waste, something must be done to stanch the American appetite for single-use disposable products.

“It’s not about attacking products; it’s about working to eliminate badly designed products,” Barger said. “And overall, we’re helping to practice reduce, reuse, recycle and create a zero-waste economy.”

See here for more on the AG ruling. I’m a little disappointed this story didn’t discuss what the bag makers’ legislative strategy might be, since I’m sure they have one. In addition to Dallas and its bag fee, the city of San Antonio has been discussing some kind of curb on single use plastic bags, and now collects them with curbside recycling, which is a nifty thing. The city of Houston approved a budget amendment in 2012 to “address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags city-wide”, but as far as I can tell nothing has happened since then. I for one continue to be open to the idea of a bag fee, but someone who is or wants to be Mayor needs to bring it up first.

Of course, all of this is contingent on the Lege not nullifying municipal laws on the subject. I don’t think plastic bags or their manufacturers are evil, but we live in a world where our oceans are overflowing with plastic trash, and we really ought to do something about that. Emphasizing reuse and recycling over use-once-and-throw-away sure seems like a small enough place to start for that.

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