Monday, August 27, 2012

Quinn vetoes plastic bag recycling plan, leaving door open for local bans and taxes

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn shot down a bill that would have created a statewide recycling pilot program for plastic bags, but supporters of the measure are skeptical about the issue being addressed on the local level.

Under Senate Bill 3442, plastic bag manufacturers would have been required to register with the state and pay fees that would have gone toward a statewide recycling program. Retailers would have been barred from buying bags from producers not registered with the state, and manufacturers would have had to offer recycling collection for plastic bags and plastic films in 90 percent of the state’s counties by 2014. The program would have sunset after four years.

“This is an industry-driven private approach to a public policy problem that could be solved without taxpayer financing,” says Crystal Lake Republican Rep. Michael Tryon, a sponsor of the bill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates Americans use 380 billion plastic bags and wraps a year. Illinois generates 494,280 tons of plastic film annually. But the measure also would have closed off options to local municipalities, such as charging fees for bags or banning their use altogether. Champaign is one city that was recently considering levying a per-bag fee to try to get consumers to cut down on using the bags.

Quinn said in his veto message that he agrees with the intent of the bill, but that it went too far in limiting what local governments could do to address the problem. “This bill is more restrictive on municipalities than any other plastic bag regulation in the country, which creates a roadblock for locals to choose the policies that fit the needs of the area. Communities throughout the country experienced great success with different types of policies, as can be seen in the numerous municipalities in California that enacted an outright ban on plastic bags.”

Sen. Terry Link, a sponsor of the bill, said the plan was modeled after a pilot program in Lake County. He said the legislation was the result of five years of negotiations with manufacturers, retailers and other interested groups. “I’m kind of perturbed today — in plain words. I put a lot of work into this, and a lot of people put a lot of work into this.” Link, a Waukegan Democrat, said he is uncertain about whether he will push for an override of Quinn’s veto. The measure passed with bipartisan support in both legislative chambers and had more than enough supporters to override Quinn’s veto. However, three House members who voted in favor of the bill — including the recently ousted former Rep. Derrick Smith — have since left the body. Link said he will gauge the changes of a successful override when lawmakers return for their veto session, which is scheduled for November after the general election.

Critics of Link’s plan say it would have done little to keep bags off streets and out of landfills and waterways. They cite the low level of current recycling rates, even though several large retail chains already offer on site recycling collection. In Illinois, an estimated 1.5 percent of plastic bags are returned for recycling, .7 percent of commercial and industrial plastic films are returned for recycling and only .3 percent of other plastic films, such as those used in consumer packaging, are returned for recycling. “I share concerns that this program would not increase the rate of recycling beyond the natural growth. Local authorities and the environmental community strongly oppose this program because the metrics are simply not aggressive enough and home rule preemption prevents more stringent local regulation,” Quinn wrote.

While Link frames the measure as a compromise worked out to bring the industry on board, environmental groups say it is a preemptive strike by businesses and manufacturers to keep cities from banning bags or enacting fees. “Business groups want to prevent Illinois cities from doing the bag-use reduction programs that are happening in other states,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “That's the real goal of this legislation.” An analysis of the bill that a coalition of environmental groups sent to Quinn claims that many of the goals in the measure, such as the reach of recycling programs into 90 percent of counties, have "likely" already been met through voluntary recycling programs at large retail chains.

 Link said that local governments have had years to address the issue, and little has been done. “Where were all these cities who are, in the 12th hour, complaining about it? They had years to make ordinances and put them into effect.”

For more on what other state's and municipalities are doing to address plastic waste pollution, see Illinois Issues July/August 2010.

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